Wednesday, 11 November 2020
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
Monday was equal pay day in Ireland, meaning that from now until the end of this year women across Ireland will effectively work for free due to the gender pay gap of over 14%. I am sure the Taoiseach will agree with me that this is an unacceptable situation in 2020. The Taoiseach is also aware that student nurses working in placements across our hospitals during the pandemic are not being paid at all. If there is one thing worse than unequal pay it is not being paid at all. As the Taoiseach knows, the work they do is highly skilled, demanding and absolutely critical to the running of our hospitals, yet it is unpaid. The overwhelming majority of these student nurses are, as it happens, women, although men are not being paid either, and ought to be. Student nurses believe they are undervalued. They use the term exploited and it is the right word. They are at the front line in this once-in-a-century pandemic.
I want to know when the Taoiseach will end this scandal and ensure that student nurses get paid.
It is a target and objective of the Government to reduce gender pay inequality. There should not be that level of inequality in terms of payments in public and private sector employment. We will continue to work to reduce that differential. It should not be there.
In terms of student nurses, negotiations have been ongoing for some time. They were successfully concluded in the first phase between the HSE and the INMO in respect of payment to student nurses, particularly fourth year student nurses who were in clinical placements in the hospitals. Negotiations are continuing between the HSE and the INMO and that is where the issue should be resolved.
While I have been in the Chamber for the past 40 minutes or so, someone the Taoiseach knows well, John Wall, has been in touch to say he has rejected the Government's proposals in respect of the terminal illness card. The proposals in the long term as regards finance, communication and other matters are quite laudable and I welcome and endorse them. However, this does not do anything for those who are facing into a terminal illness in the short term. It does not guarantee cards. I want to read a quote of what he says. He says he would love nothing more than to dedicate whatever time he has remaining solely to his family creating memories that will last and not pursuing a campaign to implement a programme for Government commitment which the people unequivocally support. The commitment with regard to extending medical cards to those with a terminal illness is on page 46 . I know Mr. Wall very well. I am a friend of his. The Taoiseach knows him well. He was at his wedding. This is not acceptable.
I appreciate the issues involved and Mr. Wall has raised them on a consistent basis. We should publish the report. The HSE's clinical advisory group was reconstituted in 2019. The Deputy is correct that it has given certain advices. The Government will act on those advices. Some of them are long-term and others are medium-term in nature. In the interim, the Government will honour what is in the programme for Government. I will deal with this and have further engagement with the Minister and the Department of Health on it.
The programme for Government contains a commitment to the phasing out of fur farms. This this is very welcome because there are obvious ethical and environmental reasons for doing so. However, recent reports from across Europe of Covid being found on mink farms and the very worrying reports from Denmark where there appears to be a mutant version of the coronavirus having spread from mink to humans indicate there is a much more urgent need to ban mink farms in Ireland. Will the Taoiseach move immediately to legislate to ban fur farming in Ireland and transition those farms currently in production out of production?
The issue is receiving the urgent attention and ongoing engagement of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Minister for Health. The Chief Medical Officer has been consulted with regard to any risks that may or may not be there in terms of mink farms in Ireland and Covid-19. My understanding is that a policy position was adopted by the previous Oireachtas to phase out mink farming in Ireland. That is something we intend to progress.
When I spoke to the Taoiseach about his failure to pay student nurses and the use of temporary agency contracts for contract tracers and medical scientists carrying out testing, he baulked when I suggested that the Government is trying to fight Covid on the cheap. I should rephrase it and state that the Government is trying to fight Covid on the basis of cheap labour and utter gross exploitation. The latest example of this is just absolutely scandalous. Some 15 contract tracers employed four weeks ago on these crappy CPL contracts that I exposed a number of weeks ago have not been paid a cent for the past four weeks despite working on the front line in Covid. They have not been paid at all despite being signed off the pandemic unemployment payment, having no income to pay their bills and being absolutely critical to the contact tracing we need to keep ahead of this virus. They have not been paid by CPL
Sorry, the HSE deals with this issue. I do not know whether the Deputy has contacted the HSE or not about it but he might give me the details and I will follow it up for him. There are many contract tracers out there now and there has not been an issue to date in terms of people being paid.
There is no agenda not to pay people. I am sure the Deputy will accept that. Send on the details to me, please, with the 15 names and I will follow it up.
Today, the Irish Examinerreports that the OPW has admitted not being able to recoup €10 million of an overpayment relating to the Department of Health building on Baggot Street. This is an incredible situation. To put it in context, we spoke about the Dublin Region Homeless Executive a couple of minutes ago, an organisation which spends €4 million a year on day services for homeless people. I understand that the owner of the building in question is Larry Goodman. I also understand that the Government was involved in a deal worth hundreds of millions of euro with private hospitals and that one of those involved in that deal was Larry Goodman. I also understand that a certain company in the beef industry has made hundreds of millions of euro paying farmers at a price below the cost of production. An individual name crops up a number of times with regard to Government deals, interactions and policies. When did the Taoiseach find out about this overpayment? Will he get the money in question back for the State?
All of these deals predate the current Government. That is the first point I will make. My understanding is that the issue relating to the Department of Health is going before the Committee of Public Accounts, which is the proper forum for it to be debated at. As Taoiseach, I do not get involved in every single operational contract or procedure that Departments conclude or engage in on a weekly or monthly basis. We do not operate on that sort of basis.
There are proper procurement policies that are meant to be adhered to by the State and I think it is important that the proper procurement policies are adhered to and are followed. I have no doubt the Comptroller and Auditor General will examine this situation and identify what has gone wrong. Furthermore, I will obviously follow up with the Department to ensure that whatever is due to it is secured.
The Taoiseach went to Enniskillen last Sunday and I would have no issue with that in normal times. He wore the poppy. We all have memories of the late Gordon Wilson. Travelling in Covid times is questionable. What is the Taoiseach going to do for the late Michael Hogan and the many others who were murdered or wounded in Croke Park 100 years ago by the Black and Tans and Crown forces? What will the Government do to commemorate those people? Earlier in the year, the previous Government talked about commemorating the Black and Tans. Those to whom I refer were our own people. It was 100 years ago this week that Michael Hogan, a young footballer, lost his life. The GAA in Tipperary has done its best. It has had small commemorations at three different graveyards and various other places. What is the Government going to do to commemorate those gallant men who gave us the games we are going to watch this weekend? The Taoiseach's family plays in those games. They gave us a legacy and now they are being abandoned and forgotten by the Government. Will there be a commemoration for them, despite Covid, because they deserve it?
There will be. The commemoration unit in the Department has been engaged with the Gaelic Athletic Association. My understanding is there will be a commemoration on 21 November, obviously with Covid restrictions attached, to honour and commemorate Michael Hogan.
The Deputy asked about Michael Hogan and I am just giving the response. We were due to have a State commemoration in Cork in respect of a number of events, particularly the burning of Cork. Unfortunately, Covid has impacted on this. We hope to do it in early December when level 5 restrictions, hopefully all going to plan, will be scaled down and we will exit from level 5. I believe in commemoration.
I believe in doing it properly and doing everything we possibly can to inform this generation and future generations, and provide insights into our past, which is very important. I regret that the Deputy compared this with going to Enniskillen. It is an important event. To be there sends an important signal and successive Taoisigh have made it an annual visit, which is well received.
The banks were bailed out in this country at a savage cost to the taxpayers and people of Ireland. The Taoiseach said today that housing was his number one priority. However, is he aware that the banks are delaying mortgages for applicants? They are asking if the applicants are being paid by their companies with the assistance of the employer wage subsidy scheme, which is not right. There are people waiting all year - hundreds of them - and some are dual applicants where a man and a woman are involved, and all they want to do is to start putting a roof over their heads. Is the Taoiseach aware the banks are delaying? Is it going to be the case they will want some kind of confirmation from applicants’ employers as to their ability to be paid for the next ten or 15 years?
I am aware there have been issues in regard to people on the pandemic unemployment payment and the wage subsidy schemes making mortgage applications. The Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform have kept in regular contact with banks about their approach to the loans situation in general during Covid-19, particularly during the severe lockdown phase. We have asked and put it to banks that they should respond in a sensible and appropriate way, and give every break they possibly can to people who are in difficult circumstances at the moment. On the bank side, they have to have assurances of capacity to pay over the medium term and, obviously, Covid-19 and severe lockdowns in certain sectors of the economy have created serious disruption. We know that in certain sectors, such as hospitality, travel and tourism, Covid-19 has caused major economic disruption which, in turn, has led to many people having to go on the pandemic unemployment payment, the employment wage subsidy scheme or the Covid restrictions support scheme.
First, for people who qualified for a primary medical certificate before the Supreme Court judgment in June of this year and who are upgrading their vehicles, are they still entitled to the VRT payment or has that been restricted? Second, with regard to the cost of the Supreme Court judgment, has it cleared the backlog of people waiting for their primary medical certificates?
The Government has given approval to the Minister for Finance and he will be bringing forward amendments, as I understand it. He will clarify and confirm this in the Finance Bill. The amendments will deal with that judgment in order to, in the first instance, enable current applications that are delayed to be dealt with expeditiously and quickly. Then, outside of that, he is undertaking a review of the entire scheme to see if it is fit for purpose in terms of its restrictive nature at the moment, and whether it can be improved as a scheme. Therefore, there are two strands to this.
The Minister for Education was recently highlighting the reduction in class sizes and, where this happens, it is obviously welcome. However, in many schools, like St. Louis Primary School in Rathmines, the class sizes have increased due to the Department policy that was set prior to Covid. As a result, there is now an empty classroom in St. Louis Primary School and a teacher on the pandemic unemployment payment. Can some common sense be brought to this in order to reverse this nonsensical situation, to give the school back its teacher and to reduce class sizes?
That is a separate issue that relates to teacher allocation in regard to pupil enrolments at the beginning of September. I will engage with the Minister for Education on this. During Covid-19, as much discretion and flexibility as possible should be shown by the Department of Education in regard to DEIS schools in particular, and in regard to enrolment and teacher allocation, particularly given the year that is in it.
I want to raise the issue of the Debenhams workers and I know this has been raised with the Taoiseach several times. I put him on notice that we are going to keep raising it with him because the resolution of this dispute is extremely important.
My understanding is the Taoiseach is in receipt of two letters from the Mandate trade union, a registered, recognised trade union, not a breakaway, as we have been discussing recently. Mandate is looking for a meeting with the Taoiseach. Will he accede to that request for a meeting and will he redouble his efforts to help these workers? They are more than 200 days out. They are out in all weathers; it is freezing and they are there to try to protect the stock because that is all they have left. The Taoiseach is more than well aware of this dispute. I ask whether he will agree to meet with Mandate.
On the same matter, the workers have been 216 days on strike and they have been let down by Debenhams and KPMG. Many of them were very angry on Friday when they watched the soft sell by “The Late Late Show” and Ryan Tubridy in regard to KPMG. I wonder how much of that €15,000 bursary that it offered was made in its role with Debenhams. It is very simple: the Taoiseach can decide to intervene or not. The question we are asking him is a very simple “Yes” or “No” question. Will he intervene on behalf of the workers? It is a simple “Yes” or “No”.
On the same matter, these workers have been now out for seven months in the increasingly cold and wet weather on the picket lines. There is an increased danger with the threat of KPMG to walk away from the liquidation process. That is a threat not just to the workers but to the State. The simplest resolution here is for the State to step aside as a creditor and to use that money in order to make sure the workers get what they are owed.
I listened to the response of the Taoiseach yesterday to Deputy Gino Kenny. What the Taoiseach said was that this could create a situation where, effectively, companies could be incentivised to treat workers like this. What I would say back to him is that, in this case, Debenhams needed no such incentive and it treated its workers this way in any case. Second, if the Government implements the Duffy Cahill recommendations, as it has said it will, this situation would not arise.
That is not an answer to what I said yesterday. It is not a cogent answer. There is no logic to what Deputy Paul Murphy is saying. Is he saying that, in every liquidation, the State should step aside when there is a dispute?
That is what the Deputy is saying. That is part of the problem with this - people presenting it as a very simple thing that can get solved simply if the State just removes itself as a creditor. If we did that in every situation, the State would be broke in double jig time. There would be no need for redundancies, no need for statutory schemes and no need for employers to honour any of their obligations. We would incentivise a whole range of behaviour that would be unacceptable.
That said, I take on board what Deputy Louise O'Reilly and others have said. We will redouble our efforts to see if we can get this resolved. I have no issue with meeting Mandate and I will try to organise that. I said yesterday to other Deputies who raised this that the Government has been involved insofar as it can be. Within the legal framework and the constraints around liquidation, and so on, the Government has been endeavouring to find a resolution to this. Unfortunately, the Workplace Relations Commission did not come to anything, not to blame the WRC. However, its initiative, which was welcomed, did not facilitate a resolution of this. It is problematic but we are going to see what we can do.
As we are all aware, in the coming weeks we approach the publication of the final report of the commission of investigation into the mother and baby homes. This publication and surrounding story will most certainly be an emotional time in our storied history.
A raw wound will be reopened and we must do all we can to heal that wound. It is important that those who have contacted us feel heard and that those who never spoke of what they went through feel heard through their silence. We need to begin a process of healing and to complete the process of telling as comprehensive a story as possible of what happened in these homes.
There needs to be clarity as to how these people will access their records. Will there be access for people adopted unlawfully? I raised the urgency of this kind of access with the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy Roderic O'Gorman, yesterday. We cannot have the kind of misinformation we had around the most recent legislation. There is still confusion out there. So much of that Bill caused hurt. Official rulings criticised the Bill and amends had to be made. New legislation is vital. People need to be assured their files are not sealed and information is not destroyed. The Taoiseach needs to assure the people of Ireland that they can access their information.
The Government has made it clear that access to personal records is there under GDPR. The mother and baby homes report will be published. The Minister is giving it consideration and a comprehensive response to that will accompany the publication of the report. The Government outlined that in its comprehensive statement of two weeks ago on a whole range of issues. We intend to do so when that response is prepared and the report is published. It will be soon and will deal with a whole range of issues that have been raised.
Page 61 of the programme for Government states that this Government will support a consultative process for sports clubs and voluntary organisations to recover and enhance their impact in the aftermath of Covid-19.
Last week in Kildare town, we had a situation where St. Brigid's Boxing Club was locked out of its premises. The Taoiseach may not be aware of St. Brigid's Boxing Club but perhaps he should familiarise himself with it because it has 300 Kildare titles, 200 Leinster titles, 55 Irish titles, 4 European medals and a world medal, among other accolades. The people of Kildare are proud of this club and it now has a professional world champion in Katelynn Phelan. Will the Government intervene to ensure the survival of this club, which has such a positive impact on mental health, particularly during Covid? All the members and their families need help.
The achievements of St. Brigid's are outstanding at national, European and world level. I have a particular interest in boxing and in doing everything I can to support amateur boxing in this country. I have asked the Minister of State with responsibility for sport to give particular attention to this sport. He will liaise with the Deputy if she sends the details of the club on to him and will see what we can do. I do not know the local circumstances that caused the premises to be closed but working with local authorities and nationally through the sports programme, we will do everything we can to assist.
I raise the issue of IDA Ireland site visits to my country of Meath and IDA Ireland grants. In 2018, the organisation's staff visited County Meath six times whereas they visited our neighbouring counties more than 20 times. In 2019, they visited our county three of four times and visited neighbouring counties more than 30 times. In 2014, there were zero IDA Ireland grants for Meath; 2015, €300,000; 2016, zero; 2017, zero; 2018, €182,000; and 2019, zero. That is less than €500,000 since 2014. In County Meath, there are more than 200,000 people and the highest commuting population in the country leaving the county to go to work. Why is Meath being treated like this? It does not matter what kind of funding. We are at the bottom of the list, regardless of what it is.
IDA Ireland works independently at one level. The Government has given it a regional mandate to work with companies that are investing in Ireland to move outside the cities where possible. Obviously, Dublin will get the lion's share of foreign direct investment because of the attractions of a capital city for inward investors, particularly digital companies and so forth. However, IDA Ireland is well aware of the desire of the Oireachtas and of the Government to spread investment as much as possible. We will continue to do that in respect of Meath and the entire country.
I raise the important issue of the winter flu vaccine in relation to the revelations this morning concerning the distribution of the vaccine. I was contacted by a local pharmacy group that represents pharmacies in the south east, particularly in County Wexford. Their problem seems to be the method of releasing the flu vaccine is not compatible with the quantities ordered. This is leaving the school clinic initiative way short of the quantities required. There are 13 primary schools signed up to this initiative in Wexford. This is a serious problem. Will the Taoiseach immediately review the distribution chain and distribution method of the winter flu vaccine? This will also have the immediate effect of relieving the burden on Covid-19 testing centres.
Dr. Colm Henry was on the national airwaves this morning explaining and outlining the flu vaccine programme. There has been a substantial uptake of the vaccine this year. The pharmacies concerned should communicate with the HSE on whatever issues they have in terms of the distribution of the vaccine. I have no doubt that pharmacies in general are well aware, as are general practitioners, of the HSE programme. I will alert the HSE to the point the Deputy has raised.
I raise the issue of Covid and the NPHET restrictions on school transport. NPHET announced a 50% cut in capacity. Since last night, I have been contacted by more than 50 pupils from Cobh who are with a private bus operator and the operator will be cutting capacity by 50%, which means 50% of pupils cannot get to school. The operator has offered the alternative of doubling the bus route but also doubling the fare. Are there any options for private operators to be brought under the same rules as the Bus Éireann school transport system or to receive subsidies? Otherwise, we will be left with parents who will not be able to get kids to school.
Extraordinary and unprecedented resources have been made available for this school academic year for public transport. Even dealing with NPHET's advice in relation to 50% on a bus necessitated €100 million plus from the Government over and above what was provided for in the school transport scheme. Substantial resources have been provided already. I do not know the specifics of the case but if the Deputy submits them to the Department, we will see what can be done. Across the country, there are challenges in relation to this but Covid-19 is having a disruptive impact on a range of activities, as I described earlier.
Thousands of children and adults with disabilities are severely restricted in this country as they cannot find a toilet with proper equipment. They often have to go through the indignity of being changed on the floor of a public toilet or stay at home altogether.
Changing Places toilet facilities are urgently needed in every county in Ireland. In Northern Ireland, there are approximately 40 of these Changing Places but in the Republic there are only 12 registered Changing Places. Eight of these are in Dublin, with only one in Munster, which is in Limerick. Without Changing Places toilet facilities available throughout the country, people with disabilities are denied a basic human right. Equipment to install Changing Places costs approximately €15,000. Changing Places facilities are designed to enhance the health, safety, comfort and dignity of someone who needs extra support. I ask the Taoiseach to work with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to grant funding to local authorities and voluntary organisations to install Changing Places in every county at an estimated cost of €550,000.
They do have the money. They have been given unprecedented resources. This is a national Parliament. I understand Members raising issues and I have no problem with that but that is €550,000 nationally. If that is divided among all the local authorities at €15,000 per facility, that is well within the capacity of local authorities. We have provided additional resources this year to local authorities because of Covid-19. It is an important point the Deputy has raised and it should be attended to but I would like to know Cork County Council's view on it. I do not know whether the Deputy has contacted them. We should pursue local authorities and perhaps get best exemplars.
Local authorities always have the flexibility to do things, to be innovative and provide good solutions. The Deputy makes a good point but the local authority should get on with it.