Thursday, 12 November 2020
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
The Government has belatedly approved the filling the two vacancies on the six-member Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO. The vacancies arose back in February. Sinn Féin welcomes this as it will allow the commission to do some of its work that it cannot do at the minute while the vacancies remain unfilled. One of the vacancies must be filled by a former Member of the Oireachtas. The Government has proposed the appointment of Geraldine Feeney, a former Fianna Fáil Senator with whom I served in the Seanad, to that role and, therefore, she fulfils that criterion. Maybe the Tánaiste can tell us whether he is aware that Ms Feeney is not just a former Oireachtas Member.
She also became a professional lobbyist. There is a question as to whether it is appropriate for a motion to come before the House, without debate, asking the Houses to appoint not only a former Member of the Oireachtas but also a professional lobbyist to the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO. There is another issue. Geraldine Feeney in her role as a lobbyist only ever lobbied for the National Association of General Practitioners, NAGP. Her eight returns to the Standards in Public Office Commission show that. The Tánaiste is aware that there is a complaint relating to his conduct on which SIPO will have to adjudicate. Is it appropriate that the Tánaiste and the Government have proposed, after a nine-month delay, to appoint Geraldine Feeney, who was a professional lobbyist for the NAGP with regard to the GP contract, to the Standards in Public Office Commission?
The Government, on the advice of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, is nominating the former Senator, Geraldine Feeney, to be a member of SIPO. The idea of having a former politician on SIPO is to have somebody who has a working understanding the work we do as politicians. I think it was Mr. Jim O'Keeffe in the past and it is now proposed to be Geraldine Feeney. Obviously, whether there is a debate on it would be a matter for the Business Committee rather than for me.
A Cheann Comhairle, I apologise if my language is going to be slightly unparliamentary, but the Tánaiste is also the Minister with responsibility for business and it is time ComReg got its finger out as regards the customer service being provided by communications companies. Every Member of the House has had so many complaints that even you, a Cheann Comhairle, intervened during the week. Clearly, ComReg is not doing its job. Does it have the powers? Has the Minister spoken to it in depth about it? The real issue is that businesses, many of whose employees are working from home, are being affected throughout the country. The level of service from Eir, Vodafone etc is beyond atrocious. It is impossible. Businesses and customers are being hugely affected. The Labour Party proposes that it will be necessary to impose penalties on these companies for such service. It is the only way to stimulate change. In his role as Minister with responsibility for business, with the Tánaiste work with the Minister with responsibility for communications to ensure that either ComReg finally does its job, and I do not have much faith in that, or that penalties will be introduced for such service provision?
I must say it has not been a huge issue in my constituency office, but it clearly is in many other constituencies where people are very dissatisfied with the level of service they are getting from the telecommunications operators at this time. From a legislative point of view, I am bringing forward legislation which will give more powers to both the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission and ComReg. There will be more powers for those bodies, but it should not require that in the meantime. These telecommunications companies provide an essential service, employ many people and do a very good job, but they have a responsibility to their customers. The level of complaints I am receiving from Deputies would indicate that at least some of those companies are not providing the level of customer service they should. It should not require legislative action by us for that to improve. They should do it anyway.
The gender pay gap in Ireland is currently 14.4%, which means that from this week women in Ireland effectively work for free for the remainder of the year. In 1975, Icelandic women went on strike to protest wage discrepancy. Some 90% of Iceland's female population did not go to their paid jobs and did not do any housework or child rearing for the day. Needless to say, Iceland's parliament passed a law guaranteeing equal pay soon afterwards. That was in 1975 and it is now 2020. Why are we so behind and what will the Government do to address this immediately?
We already have a law that requires equal pay for equal work. However, it is not as simple as that. Many women work in professions that were traditionally considered female professions and those professions have been less well paid historically than jobs that were traditionally seen to be male professions. It is the breadwinner model, as it is described. Why is a garda paid more than a nurse? I do not know. It is probably because of this tradition that one was seen to be a man's job and the other was seen to be a woman's job. That is not something that can be fixed quickly. However, we are going to act on it through legislation that is currently going through the Houses on the gender pay gap, which requires companies with more than 50 employees to report on gender pay, report on the gap, explain why there is a gap and to do something about it. It follows on from the legislation in Iceland. I do not know why it has not been done yet, as it should be done, but it is something we will try to get done by the first quarter of next year.
The Debenhams workers have shown incredible determination and courage. Their patience with what has happened to them is astounding. I also think they have shown leadership in trying to push this House to legislate as it should have done many years ago. It is time that the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach stepped up to the plate and showed leadership. This issue has been raised 17 times in the last week in the House - this is the 18th time - by many Deputies across all parties, even on the Government benches. It is time to answer the question. The Taoiseach gave a commitment in the recent past to Deputies Gino Kenny, Barry and Boyd Barrett that the Cabinet would discuss this issue. Has it discussed it this week and, if not, when will it discuss it? We are hurtling towards Christmas. Next Tuesday, the workers will be 222 days on strike and they will be outside the gates of Leinster House to plead with the leadership of this country to show equal leadership to what they have shown.
We have discussed it many times, although not at the Cabinet this week. The Taoiseach, the Ministers of State, Deputies English and Troy, and I have been involved in this. There has been a huge amount of engagement with Mandate, ICTU and, to the extent possible, with the liquidator. I have been in direct contact with Debenhams UK. We have done a lot to try to bring about a solution to this. Most recently, the Workplace Relations Commission, an office under my remit, brought together KPMG and Mandate to see if a solution could be brokered.
The fundamental problem is one that we cannot really get around. Debenhams Ireland went bust and, in doing so, left a lot of money owing to a lot of people, not just the workers but other businesses, the Revenue Commissioners and local authorities. There is not enough money left over to go around and to give everyone what they deserve. That is the truth of it. That is what happens in a liquidation process, unfortunately, and with every day that this goes on there is less money left in the pot because the liquidator has to pay for security and continue to pay rent.
Recently, I raised the issue of churches and the celebration of mass being banned as a result of the current lockdown. I strongly disagree with this approach. Like many other people, I see the celebration of mass and the sacraments as an essential service, at the least. Churches have gone to great lengths to ensure that they are safe places in which to congregate and I do not believe any outbreaks of Covid-19 have been associated with attendance at mass. Has the Government discussed this and are there plans in place to reopen churches for public mass? It is not fair to allow up to 100 people into a supermarket at a time, yet the same people cannot congregate in a church while socially distancing. People must be allowed to celebrate mass now. It is important for not only their spiritual health but also their mental health. The celebration of public masses must be deemed an essential service.
This House needs an opportunity to discuss all the actions being taken during the six-week period of level 5, so the wisdom of Members on all sides of the House can be brought to bear rather than having isolated questions brought forward. We all want to understand and improve the test and trace system, we want to see plans for vaccines and we want strategic sectors to have options to stay open as best they can. I ask the Tánaiste to provide an opportunity for all Members to have a chance to contribute.
On a point of order, I asked a specific question, as I am entitled to, and I would appreciate a reply. If the Deputy wants to ask a question, that is no problem at all. I would like to have a specific answer.
Out of respect to both Deputies, I will reply separately to the two queries. The plan at the moment is not to ease any restrictions and that means that masses can only happen online, as is the case currently. Obviously, 25 people can attend a funeral mass or a wedding but not a regular mass. The Taoiseach met with the four Catholic archbishops to discuss this issue. We hope to be in a position in early December to allow masses to resume again but like any gathering, unfortunately, there is a risk and even if people are socially distanced within a church there is everything that happens around it as well in terms of entry and exit, the car park and people taking the bus. All of these things increase the risk of the virus spreading and that is why the rules apply. December is not too far away and I hope it will be possible to allow masses to resume in person from 1 December.
On Deputy Bruton's comments, I very much agree that it would be useful for this House to have an open debate on what the restrictions should look like from 1 December in order that each of us can bring his or her wisdom to the table. Of course we will listen to advice from NPHET and the Government will have its own views too. It will be useful for us to hear as well the views of the 160 Members of this House on how that period in December might look, because we all want the restrictions to be eased as much as possible, but we also know that the more they are eased the higher the risk that we end up having a spike again and, potentially, a third wave. There are many choices to be made and a lot of difficult trade-offs. It would be helpful for us to hear the views of the House in that regard.
I wish to advise the House that the Business Committee has had a request for a strategic overview of the Covid situation. On Thursday next, the report of the Covid committee will be considered here in the House. That is some progress in that area.
Deputy Michael Collins and I tabled a Topical Issue on the same matter but it fell on deaf ears, which is very sad.
The Tánaiste is the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation and it is appropriate that I put this question to him. The members of the Irish Bookmakers Association have been denied access to the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, which is very unfair as they make their returns to Revenue, pay tax and PRSI and employ a lot of people. Revenue classifies them as casual traders because of the nature of their work and the fact that they move their pitches around to different race meetings. It is totally unfair that legitimate business people are denied access to this scheme. A new business that started up perhaps three or four months ago can get access to the grant. I spoke to a bookmaker who has been in business for 15 years, who goes to 17 tracks and pays his taxes, but he is denied access to the CRSS because Revenue describes him as a casual trader. That is something the Government should examine because it is unfair that this cohort of business people who work hard and pay their taxes are met with a blanket denial.
The way the CRSS works is that it compensates businesses whose premises are closed as a consequence of Covid orders. It is supposed to help them with the ongoing running costs of those premises even when they are closed. If a business does not have a premises, then it is not eligible. The people to whom the Deputy refers may be eligible for other grants.
There is a commitment in the programme for Government to provide extra funding for the retrofitting and insulation of Dublin City Council houses and apartments. It has been made known to me that no funding has been provided for a long time to Dublin City Council. This lack of funding has resulted in a complete standstill and suspension of the council's retrofitting programme. If we are serious about the environment, it is essential that the Ministers for the Environment, Climate and Communications and Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputies Eamon Ryan and Darragh O'Brien, and their Departments engage with Dublin City Council in order to deliver as a matter of urgency the funding which was promised to it but which has not been delivered.
It is a local authority, and I think my own party is in opposition on that particular council. Councils receive funding from lots of different mechanisms. They get direct grants from the Government. They also have money from the property tax, commercial rates and other charges. Ultimately, it is for them to decide how best to deploy their budgets, which amount to more than €1 billion. If there is any way we can give assistance, we will try to do so, but the Deputy must bear in mind that these are local authorities and they make decisions on how to spend their money and they have their own revenue too.
Last week, I asked the Tánaiste if the removal of stock from Debenhams stores by KPMG is an essential service under level 5 lockdown. In the past week I have emailed his office three times, contacted the Minister for Health, the Garda Commissioner, the Garda press office and the Department of Health press office - my office also contacted the Tánaiste's office - but a week later we still do not have an answer. This week, Debenhams workers were out picketing during a yellow weather warning and a level 5 lockdown. The question they are asking is if it is legal for KPMG to go in and take the stock out under level 5 restrictions. I do not believe it is, and I ask the Tánaiste for clarity now.
The truth is that I do not know. It is the Department of the Taoiseach that co-ordinates those regulations. There is a list of published essential services and essential work. I do not know for sure if it is on that list or not, but the Department of the Taoiseach will answer the question for the Deputy.
The programme for Government states that protecting citizens is the founding duty of the State and, in particular, it mentions victims of sexual abuse. I wish to raise the matter of waiting lists in St. Louise's unit in Our Lady's Children's Hospital Crumlin, where children reporting sexual abuse are interviewed. I have a constituent aged six who reported in early March that she had been sexually abused but she has still not been interviewed. She cannot get counselling before the interview occurs. This is a long time to wait when one is six years old, and it is a long time for her mam to be watching her child in this excruciating position. Yesterday, I wrote to the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman. The child's mam has already been in touch with him but she received no help from him or Tusla either. I will be writing to the Ombudsman for Children today. It is up to the State to protect children. It is up to the Garda to conduct the interview. Last month we had to deal with mother and baby homes and this week we have traumatised children and their traumatised parents. What can be done about this waiting list?
That does seem like an extraordinarily long time to wait to be interviewed in respect of such a serious matter. I do not have information on the matter but I will certainly raise it with my ministerial colleagues and ask them to get back to the Deputy directly.
The programme for Government contains many commitments to funding environmental challenges posed by climate change. There is a residential road in my constituency in Tipperary. It is a cul-de-sac located at Glencush at the foot of the Galtee Mountains. Due to its location, it is exposed to a lot of run-off from the mountains which leads to regular heavy flooding in no one particular section. The situation is so bad that recently palliative care services had to stretcher out a patient and put them on a jeep because the location was inaccessible for the ambulance. Other residents in this area have health issues and are extremely alarmed by the prospect that the emergency services will not be able to reach them directly. The council secured €82,000 in funding to deal with climate change adaptation measures but it says it is nowhere near enough to remedy the situation. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has told me that no further money is being provided under the climate change fund and the council would have to include the work in next year's programme. This road is regularly used by hillwalkers and it is a danger which leaves the council open to possible litigation.
I am afraid I am not familiar with the particular project, but funding was increased in the budget for 2021 so we would anticipate an announcement of funding for regional and local roads, probably around January or February, so perhaps it can be included in that.
A recent survey revealed that residents in County Carlow must travel an average of 40 km to their nearest accident and emergency department, a car journey of approximately 37 minutes. Because we do not have an adequate public transport system people must use any other mode of transport. There is nothing suitable for any kind or urgent travel. In Kilkenny, they have a marvellous scheme where anyone can travel from a location in the town, near McDonagh Junction and the train station. They can hop on and hop off the bus and get to St. Luke's General Hospital in Kilkenny in minutes. This is a great link. My understanding is that it is free to those with a free travel pass. It is the kind of model that is urgently needed in Carlow. The reason I raise the issue now is that I failed to get picked to ask a question of the Minister for Transport. There were plans for a similar bus system in Carlow, which was supposed to happen early this year and then during the summer.
We were meant to get the same bus system, but it has not happened. We are now heading into 2021. What is the status of it? I ask the Tánaiste to speak to the Minister. I have had several phone calls in recent days asking when we will be able to provide a service, particularly for people from Carlow who would be able to get the bus to the train station and then travel on to the hospital in Kilkenny.
It sounds like a very good idea. Many patients who use St. Luke's come from Carlow and people who do not have cars need to be facilitated. As taxis are extremely expensive, a bus system would be much better. As the Deputy stated, the matter comes under the remit of the Minister for Transport. As she did not have the opportunity to raise it with him, she has raised with me. That is fine. I will make sure he knows she brought it up and that she gets a reply.
Working people are under more pressure than ever before. Many have been working at home since March and for many of them the distinction between work life and home life has blurred beyond recognition. Video meetings in different time zones, work calls in the evenings and the constant ping of emails arriving have heaped pressure on people. This is especially true for those who are struggling with their work-life balance, their mental health or the general upheaval that Covid-19 has presented. Current laws state that people should work an average of a maximum of 48 hours per week. For many, that would be a luxury. The programme for Government contains a commitment in respect of the introduction of proposals this year regarding a right to disconnect. This was part of the Fine Gael remote working strategy launched in January, prior to the Covid pandemic, and it is something that is already in action in France. Can the Tánaiste outline plans to enable employees to have the right to disconnect so that when they switch off from work they can actually switch off?
As the Deputy pointed out, we already have legislation on working times, stipulating a maximum number of hours that anyone can work in a given week, although it is averaged over 16 weeks in order to facilitate shift work and so on. There is already a law in place in that sense. Working time also includes any of that time at home, but perhaps it is not enough. We engaged in a public consultation on remote working and received more than 500 replies, which is very encouraging. We are now examining a twin-track approach to this by giving people the right to request home working and requiring that employers take that seriously. Linked to that is a right to disconnect so that people do not find that working from home means they are always working. We want to avoid that. We are looking at other jurisdictions to see whether their laws have made a difference. There is little point in passing a law that does not really make a difference. We should have some proposals in the new year.
The programme for Government contains a clear commitment to finally solve the issue of the illegal use of scrambler bikes. This week, Deputy Lahart and I submitted a Private Members' Bill to the Ceann Comhairle's office to deal with some of those legislative changes. This matter involves a number of Ministers and Departments. I ask the Tánaiste not only to look at that Bill but also to look at the non-legislative elements required to resolve the issue and to have a whole-of-government response to it.
We will definitely do that. This is a running sore and a hot issue in the Deputy's constituency and mine, where people have been demanding proper regulation in respect of scramblers and quad bikes for quite some time. On multiple occasions, the Garda has indicated that the laws in place are sufficient, but people on the ground are telling us a very different story. We are determined to do something to improve the situation and that will involve the Departments of Transport and Justice and other Departments..
I raise the issue of the increasingly long waiting list for driving tests. Everybody knows the impact Covid-19 is having on the service in this regard. However, the delay in getting tests is having a severe impact in rural areas where public transport is not readily available. At present, 93,791 people are awaiting driver tests. Some 954 of these are in Wexford alone. I am being contacted on an almost daily basis by essential workers, such as nurses, shop assistants and lorry drivers, who are finding it almost impossible to get to work because of this delay. I ask the Tánaiste to use his offices to urgently consult with instructors, testers and their unions to find a way to accelerate the number of tests that can be carried out safely in coming months.
I appreciate that this is a real problem. Before the pandemic, we reached the point where the numbers on waiting list for tests were quite low but they are now quite high again. We need to bear in mind that we need to protect the health and safety of driving instructors and testers - I know the Deputy will also want to do that - and this means that there are fewer slots than there used to be. The Road Safety Authority has put in place a system whereby people who need a driving test because they are required to drive to work or to college can be prioritised and put on a cancellation list. That is working quite well, but not everyone is aware of it. If the Deputy comes across a constituent who needs that test because they have to get to work or college, they should avail of that possibility to be prioritised.
It is stated on pages 12 and 13 of the programme for Government that the Government will prioritise a town centres approach to the regeneration of our villages, bring forward and expand the town and village renewal scheme, bring vacant and derelict buildings back into use and promote residential occupancy. Will this be made a priority so that towns like Monasterevin, Portarlington and Rathangan can have the blight of derelict buildings removed from their main streets and that these will be transformed into much-needed homes? They can also be transformed into business premises so that the daily exodus from Kildare and Laois in search of work will be reduced along, as will the consequent impact on the environment.
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter, which is very much a priority for Government. We are determined to make more progress on it. Much has been done already with the town and village renewal scheme in recent years through the Department for Rural and Community Development. However, we need to accelerate it. When we see it done in a town, it is great to see derelict buildings being brought back into use for housing or for community use and to see old banks that were closed being reinvented as enterprise hubs so that people are working there again and spending money in the shops, pubs and cafés in the town. Where it works, it works really well and is something we need to accelerate in the years ahead. We will certainly want to include the towns the Deputy mentioned.
Turtulla Cross is located just outside my home town of Thurles. It is located on the N62 between Thurles and Horse and Jockey. This junction is extremely dangerous and a number of very serious and even fatal accidents have occurred there in recent years. The infrastructure at this crossroads is simply not good enough. It is under the remit of Transport Infrastructure Ireland, which, I understand, is looking at two possible options for works to be carried out at the junction. I urge that funding be made available so that this most necessary work can be carried out in early 2021.
I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. The transport budget for next year contains additional funding for local and regional roads and also for low-cost safety improvement works. It will be the first quarter in the new year before the Minister for Transport is in a position to allocate that.
I know the Business Committee has already met so there will be no other opportunity to raise this. Does the Tánaiste believe it is appropriate to appoint a former lobbyist for the National Association of General Practitionersto SIPO, which has responsibility, in the first instance, to investigate allegations of the leaking of confidential documents to that organisation? Does he not see this as a complete contradiction and complete conflict? Does he believe it is appropriate? Will he intervene on it?
It is my understanding that NPHET met this week to discuss the issue of Covid numbers in County Donegal. It is really important that its research and insight are given to the community. People in the county are working hard. Our businesses and restaurants are closed, and we are struggling to get our numbers down. People are worried. GPs and other medical staff are working very hard. People are looking forward to 25 December. Businesses are looking forward to 1 December. We really need to make public the information NPHET has regarding Donegal to try to tackle the issue and bring these numbers down.
I will certainly pursue that matter. It is important that we give people as much information as we can about these issues. We have seen a really significant reduction in the incidence of the virus throughout Ireland, but not so much in Donegal. The numbers have only come down slightly in Donegal. East Donegal in particular seems to have a high incidence of the virus. In the other Border counties, it is actually going very well.
This does create a concern for everyone, not least people in Donegal, who want to know that they will be able to reopen in December on the same basis as the rest of the State. Anything we can do to encourage that or provide the necessary information, we will do.
There are more than a dozen Deputies waiting, but three have been here since before my arrival, namely, Deputies Kerrane, Niamh Smyth and Nolan. If the House is amenable, I will hear 30-second questions from each of the three Deputies. That is agreed.
It will be seven weeks tomorrow until 1 January 2021 when, according to current legislation, the pension age is due to increase to 67 years. Promised legislation to defer the measure is nowhere to be seen. The membership of the pensions commission was established last week and as the Tánaiste is aware, issues have been raised by a number of organisations, particularly those which represent older people and women. When will legislation be introduced to defer the increase in the pension age to 67 years?
I raise the important matter of roads funding, which the Tánaiste touched on earlier. Counties Cavan and Monaghan are completely dependent on the rural road network as there is no public transport or railway line. As I have said many times, we need to be imaginative and creative and consider reopening the local rail line. There is a very sad article in The Anglo Celtthis week by Sean McMahon about an elderly lady, Kitty Clarke, who is 74 years of age. A picture speaks a thousand words, as they say, and the article features a photograph of the deplorable state of Curkish Lane in Bailieborough, which is also a public road. I am acutely aware of the problems faced by Cavan and Monaghan county councils in relation to roads funding. I ask the Tánaiste to ensure, in his deliberations at Cabinet with the Minister for Transport, that a positive bias is shown towards counties such as Cavan and Monaghan, which are totally dependent on the rural network, in the provision of roads funding for local authorities.
Page 47 of the programme for Government states that the expansion of primary and community care is at the heart of the Sláintecare programme. After spending a significant period trying to get an update on a proposal to have a primary care centre in Birr, I finally got an answer yesterday and was informed that the proposed site for a primary care centre was rejected. This contradicts the Government's approach to this whole issue and the Sláintecare report. I ask the Government, specifically the Minister for Health, to urgently intervene in this matter. The people of Birr and the surrounding areas badly need a primary healthcare centre. This issue has been ongoing for years and it needs to be brought to a conclusion.
On the issue of the pension age, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, will bring legislation through the Houses before Christmas to retain the State pension age at 66 years. That legislation will be done before Christmas, so nobody need be concerned that the commitment will not be honoured because it will be.
Deputy Smyth raised the issue of road funding for counties Cavan and Monaghan. Transport Infrastructure Ireland funding is usually released in December and regional and local road funding will be released in January or February by the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan. The Deputy makes a good point, one that needs to be recognised, that Cavan and Monaghan are very rural counties and have no rail network. That needs to be taken into account in terms of the funding that is allocated to those counties.
I am afraid I do not have any information on Deputy Nolan's question about the primary care centre in Birr but I will check it out. I agree that the town certainly needs a new primary care centre sooner rather than later.