Wednesday, 18 November 2020
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
I raise the issue of Dublin Zoo. Zoos across the island are under pressure but Dublin Zoo is in big trouble and we woke this morning to the news that it might face closure. I need not tell the Taoiseach that a closure would be devastating for local employment and the economy, as well as for tourism. Dublin Zoo is one of our key tourist attractions and has occupied a special place for children and families right across the island for generations. The director of the zoo, Dr. Christoph Schwitzer, was quoted today as saying that one cannot switch off a zoo when one goes home. He also remarked that one cannot furlough an elephant, a zebra or a giraffe. There is a need for funding. I have been in touch with the Minister of State, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, about this issue over the last few months. He wishes to be helpful but the fund of €500,000 for zoos is just not enough. I am sure the Taoiseach, like me, does not want Dublin Zoo or any of the other zoos to face closure. I appeal to him to intervene and to ensure the necessary supports are made available. Generally, the zoo is a not-for-profit organisation and does not rely on public moneys but it needs help now.
The Government does not want Dublin Zoo to close and we will do everything we possibly can to ensure it stays open. I will be working with the Minister to make sure that happens. This issue came up the last time I was in government, when Bertie Ahern was Taoiseach. To give him his due, he engineered a significant investment for Dublin Zoo which set it in train to become the very modern facility it became. He was a great advocate for the zoo. I was listening this morning and it has been some time since capital funding has been allocated to the zoo by the Government. Given the extraordinary circumstances of a global pandemic, which is a once in 100 years event, the Government has to intervene and work with Dublin Zoo to make sure it is available for generations to come. I intend to act on that.
Regarding judicial appointments, I have no interest in the merits or demerits of any candidate. I have no intention of going into that but I have a responsibility to the process and to ensuring the Executive is doing its job. The Government is running scared as regards the Minister for Justice coming in to answer questions. That is quite clear. The Taoiseach said there was no link between this and the appointment of the Attorney General. I accept what he is saying but if that is the case, the alternative is that the Minister, Deputy McEntee, did a solo run. The Taoiseach made a very interesting point. He said the precedent is that the Taoiseach appoints the Attorney General of his or her choice but the precedent also is, and always has been, that the Minister for Justice follows the Cabinet handbook and consults the Taoiseach and Tánaiste regarding such appointments. That did not happen here. I want to ask the Taoiseach a question based on what the Minister for Justice said at a committee meeting yesterday, because he seems to contradict what she said. On what date was he, as Taoiseach, informed of the proposal to appoint Mr. Justice Woulfe to this position?
The Cabinet handbook was followed. The Minister for Justice of any government brings one name to the Government for a judicial appointment. We would have known on a certain date prior to the date on which the judge was appointed-----
-----that the Minister intended to bring the name of Mr. Séamus Woulfe to the Cabinet. As I said before and have said publicly, as a matter of courtesy the then Taoiseach, Deputy Leo Varadkar, informed Deputy Eamon Ryan and I that Mr. Justice Woulfe had come through the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board. That is it. Before the Cabinet meeting-----
I raise the issue of affordable housing for purchase and rent. When will legislation on affordable housing be published? We were promised that it would be published by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage this autumn. Figures published by the Department show that the direct building of housing by local authorities can come in at 50% of the cost of acquiring them from private developers. Given that fact, and the decision by Dublin city councillors this week not to sell the lands on the Oscar Traynor Road to a private developer, will the Government engage with Dublin City Council to bring forward affordable housing on the Oscar Traynor lands for purchase and rent, using finance from the European Investment Bank and the serviced sites fund?
Is the Taoiseach aware that the National Economic and Social Council reported this week that the Land Development Agency, LDA, can be a game changer in allowing the State to acquire and develop a mixed range of housing following a master plan? Does he agree with me regarding the decision of Dublin City Council to reject just such a development following a master plan? It would have provided 30% social housing, 25% cost rental housing, 20% affordable housing and 25% private housing, which is the sort of the development we want. Is it not a serious threat to that vision to have local authorities, driven by Sinn Féin-controlled authorities, rejecting integrated housing of this type? Furthermore, this represents a threat to the LDA because there is a belief that public land should be solely for one type of housing.
The legislation on affordable housing is making progress. I assure Deputy Cian O'Callaghan that there is much work under way in that regard. On the precise timeline, I hope to be in a position to publish that Bill towards the end of the year. Obviously, there are issues with progressing but it is going in the right direction. We had a meeting of the Cabinet subcommittee on housing this week and very good progress was reported on that matter. Likewise, I assure Deputy Bruton that I have insisted on taking a keen interest in the Bill on the LDA in order to get it through. It has been around for a while and there are many complexities surrounding it. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage is working very proactively on it with the Attorney General.
Why? The Deputy is correct that it has the potential to be a significant catalyst in the development of housing. Generally, because of Covid-19, we will probably get 17,000 or 18,000 houses completed this year.
Exactly two weeks ago, I raised the case of the imminent deportation of two care workers from Zimbabwe. I see yesterday Deputy Gannon raised the same issue. The Taoiseach's response to him was: "I do not know the individual cases [about those working in the health service]...If Deputy Gannon has the details [please pass them on]... I will follow them up." When I raised it with the Taoiseach two weeks ago, I passed on the details. I then found out that the Taoiseach's civil servant passed them on to another civil servant who passed them on to yet another civil servant who then got INIS, the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, to write back to the women to confirm their deportation.
These are women who work in our health service. They may be the same two Zimbabweans who Deputy Gannon referred to yesterday or they may be different ones. If they are another two, then more shame. How does this system work? The Taoiseach says he will take it up and then he kicks it around the civil servants. It then goes back to them to reaffirm that they will be deported. Will the Taoiseach give us an answer that he will deal with it and not kick it to touch with various Departments? Will he actually deal with it and allow these brave health workers, who have worked through the worst of the pandemic-----
I have helped people who were on the imminent deportation list. Why? Because people contacted me and gave me the cases personally. I would have seen to it and engaged with INIS and with the relevant Minister of the day, even when I was in Opposition. I did not make a song and dance about it. I just dealt with it.
I take the Deputy's point and will follow that up. Coming in out of the blue raising cases is fine. The Deputy is entitled to do that and it creates profile for the issue. I am not so sure, however, it actually advances the case of the individual concerned. I do not think-----
I have the floor.
I did say genuinely to Deputy Gannon that I do not think anyone should be deported to any red zone country during the Covid pandemic. Equally, if people are working in our health service, we need to ascertain their status in our health service and see if we can retain them.
The new contract for air search and rescue services is to be tendered in the next 12 to 18 months. It is currently serviced by a ten-year contract with CHC which includes provision of patient transfers from University Hospital Waterford. The contract is estimated to cost between €70 million and €80 million per annum, €700 million to €800 million over the ten-year lifespan. CHC is a private company and many more will be interested in this tender.
Can we not consider using our Defence Forces and Air Corps to deliver most of this service? At the end of the contract, the State would then own the helicopter and monitoring assets. We do not employ private security firms to police our streets. Instead, we invest in the Garda Síochána and our public services. How much of this €700 million to €800 million will we allow to bypass investment in our State rescue and Air Corps services?
Again, I am uncomfortable dealing with procurement issues generally on the floor of the House. Procurement processes should be independent of the House.
I take the Deputy's more general point on the State investing more in its own capacity in air rescue, the Coast Guard, our Defence Forces and the Air Corps. Some progress is being made in terms of recruitment to the Air Corps. I would be happy to see a greater investment. The commission that will be established shortly to examine the future of our Defence Forces will take that issue under its wings.
The whole population is under severe pressure dealing with this Covid situation. Importantly, for the farming community, it is a lonely place and farmers find it hard to get labour if they get sick or whatever.
Officials from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, however, are insisting on doing sheep welfare inspections. This is ridiculous. They should be supporting these farmers because it might take days to round up all the sheep on hill and mountain farms. One needs good weather but with fog, rain and short days many farmers are unable to do it. This is putting huge pressure on farmers and in my and other constituencies who are forced to do this. Can the Department not use drones or some other technology to deal with this?
I always support departmental officials but they need to be supporting farmers now, both physically and mentally. These farmers are under huge pressure because they cannot get staff if they get ill or Covid. Will the Taoiseach ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to call off the wolves here?
I will talk to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine about the sheep welfare inspectors. I am not aware of the potential for drones to monitor sheep on the headlands. Maybe the Department can explore that as well.
Last week saw a catastrophic landslide on a wind farm construction site at Meenbog in County Donegal. There is quite a lot of video footage showing the extent of the environmental disaster and its impact on a sensitive location. It makes for stark viewing.
The potential for a disaster such as this was well flagged by campaigners due to the inadequacy of the governance of the industry. A review was started by the Fine Gael-Labour Government in 2013 but it still has not concluded.
Will the Government commit to a comprehensive review of the outdated 2006 guidelines once and for all in light of the Meenbog disaster and the Derrybrien site which has cost over €2 million in fines, while clocking up €15,000 more every single day due to Government inaction?
I am aware of the peat slide near Meenbog wind farm, Barnesmore Gap, south of Ballybofey, County Donegal, which is under construction. The matter is being actively investigated by several statutory agencies, led by Donegal County Council. It involves the Environmental Protection Agency, Irish Water, the Loughs Agency, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, as well as the Northern Ireland Environment Agency having regard to the fact that the development is a transboundary project. A cross-Border multiagency meeting was held yesterday to co-ordinate a response to the significant pollution event that is impacting the Mournebeg River resulting from a bog slide in the townland of Meenbog, Ballybofey. All works have been suspended on this site.
On the issue of guidelines around wind farms, I am anxious to progress these. More generally, if we are committed to phasing out the use of fossil fuels, as is key in our climate change agenda, then we will need more wind energy. Offshore wind energy represents the future. It is something in which we need to invest very significantly and-----
Yesterday was a day of mass repression in an EU country, namely, Greece. Up to 6,000 police were mobilised against workers' protests. They used tear gas, water cannons and stun grenades. More than 100 people were arrested, elderly people were beaten on the streets, a communist MP was injured and a journalist arrested.
The marches have been called by organisations of the Greek left, including the KKE, Antarsya and Xekinima. They called people on to the streets on the anniversary of the student uprising of 1973 which led to the overthrow of the dictatorship. They were also protesting against the Greek Government's decision to tear up the eight-hour day rule and forcibly to compel people work an extra two hours per day. The Greek Government used Covid regulations stating that only a maximum of three can gather. The demonstrators were masked, however. How can a government declare war on working class people but yet make it illegal for ordinary people to fight back?
Is the Taoiseach prepared to make a protest to the Greek ambassador about the scandalous actions of the Greek State on the streets of Greece yesterday?
I will undertake to get a comprehensive report from my Department and the Department of Foreign Affairs on what happened. I am not in a position to make any judgment this morning on what the Deputy has asserted.
People in all European Union countries are and should be entitled to protest. That said, Covid-19 places very significant restrictions on that right because it conflicts with the competing right of everybody to public health.
As the Taoiseach knows, the coronavirus has blown the social fabric of our country to smithereens. It has been totally decimated. Social engagement, relationships and possible relationships have been put on hold for almost eight months. Young single boys and girls, couples and men and women of all ages are totally frustrated. We cannot blame bars or restaurants for the increase in cases in recent days. However, as far back as two weeks ago Dr. Tony Holohan said there would be no drinking in bars at Christmas. To eliminate house parties, I ask the Taoiseach to ensure that bars, restaurants and hotels are open under level 2 restrictions. They are clearly the safest places to consume alcohol. That has been proven. People need to have a Christmas.
Our first priority is public health and protecting lives. We must never lose sight of that. I accept the genuine position that the Deputy has adopted, but we must never lose sight of our overarching objective of protecting lives and the overall economy. The fastest way to endanger the economy is to have a large increase in cases, hospitalisations and pressure on intensive care units. In its own way, this would do more damage to the economy than the restrictions. That is a very basic logical truth. We can see what is happening all over Europe. Ireland is in the third best position among the European Union's member states where coronavirus is concerned. Sometimes one would not believe that when listening to the critics of the current policy. We have to work on the basis of informed decision-making. We have researched this point. Gatherings and congregations of people cause problems. The virus thrives in that environment. The Government will make decisions next week on how to exit level 5 in December.
I wish to raise the issue of zoos and aquariums. Some eight institutions in Ireland are involved in the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Fota Wildlife Park in my own area is a hugely important resource. It had more than 62,000 visitors last year. It serves very important conservational and educational purposes. Some 18,600 students visited in 2019. I want to support the proposal for an injection of capital funding. On top of that, there are more than 60 licensed zoos and aquariums in Ireland. As I said this morning, they cannot just switch off. They have to feed and look after the animals. They do a good job.
I thank Deputy Stanton for raising the issue. As I said earlier, the Government is engaging with Dublin Zoo and with Fota Wildlife Park. It will intervene to support the sector, particularly to keep those facilities open. I take the Deputy's wider point on board.
The Ability programme provides funding to 27 local, regional and national projects throughout the country. It focuses on bringing young people with disabilities up to the age of 29 closer to the labour market. The Ability programme is co-financed by the European Social Fund and the Department of Social Protection and is administered by Pobal. The programme is due to conclude in 2021. It is of vital importance to many young people with disabilities in west Cork and throughout the country. What steps is the Government taking to ensure that it continues after 2021?
I agree that the Ability programme has been very effective and is an important programme. Programmes of this nature are evaluated by the line Department and the line agencies with a view to improvements and refinements. I will come back to the Deputy on the Department's position. Funding is available for disability services across the board and I have no doubt that this programme is key to facilitating access to the workplace for people with special needs.
We learned last night that as of last Friday 133 staff at Letterkenny University Hospital were off work. We understand the number could now be above 150. All non-essential services have been suspended. The hospital faces an unprecedented crisis. We are talking about a hospital that was run at full capacity over recent years, so that is saying something. I appeal to the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health to ensure that every possible additional resource is deployed to the hospital. As public representatives we are dealing every day with staff and patients' families who are appealing for help in securing additional resources. I appeal to the Taoiseach to do everything he can. I spoke to Dr. Colm Henry, the national clinical officer of the HSE, twice yesterday. I ask the Taoiseach to get behind these calls.
I wish to refer to the programme for Government's commitment to protecting public health patients and ensuring capacity for future surges of Covid-19. As of yesterday, 61 people were waiting on hospital trolleys at University Hospital Limerick. Today there are 50. This is unacceptable and puts patients and staff at unnecessary risk. Last week the University of Limerick Hospitals Group was forced to reduce scheduled procedures drastically as nearly 200 staff at both University Hospital Limerick and Ennis Hospital tested positive for Covid-19 or were deemed to have been close contacts of positive cases. As as result, six wards were closed. Figures obtained by the Irish Patients Association show that, on average, the full capacity protocol was deployed at University Hospital Limerick every second day of the year until the end of September. This would be bad enough at the best of times, but in the middle of a public health crisis this level of failure is totally unacceptable.
Both cases illustrate the damage that Covid-19 can do. That is why we have restrictions. It is worth reflecting on the impact Covid-19 can have on hospital services. Hospitals have had to postpone non-essential services because of the spread of Covid-19 among hospital staff. That is an unfortunate reality. We will do everything we possibly can to provide every possible resource to Letterkenny University Hospital. The Deputy should be in no doubt about that. Anything that has to be done will be done. The same applies to any other hospital across the country. As we consider the easing of restrictions it is important to note that they are there for a reason. When there are very high levels of community transmission, the virus finds its way into hospitals and nursing homes. That is the context of the restrictions.
Will the Taoiseach and the Government commit to reviewing the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grant scheme before next April? In light of the cost of living and other considerations, the income thresholds are not appropriate to the times we are living in. Students who were entitled to and received the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP will not receive a grant in 2021, which means that many will not be able to continue their education. I ask the Taoiseach to ensure that the PUP is not considered reckonable income for the purposes of the SUSI grant scheme in the 2021-2022 academic year. It is very important.
The extension of the pandemic unemployment payment to students has been a very welcome benefit to thousands of students throughout the country, understandably, because they would have lost the work opportunities which would have helped them to fund their way through college. There have been some improvements to the SUSI scheme under this year's budget. There will also be a once-off additional increase for those currently on SUSI grants to help them through this year. As for the next academic year, that will fall due for consideration closer to next year's budget.
The Debenhams workers were outside Leinster House yesterday following 223 days of picketing for a fair redundancy. Last week, I emailed the Taoiseach's office inquiring if KPMG would be allowed to withdraw stock from the stores during the level 5 lockdown and the response was that it can do so. At a time when we are telling people that they cannot shop for clothes for their children, for newborns or for their families and we are asking them to stay at home, we are allowing KPMG to go into stores to remove stock, which means we are forcing the Debenhams workers to picket during the level 5 lockdown. I understand there is no easy-fix to this very complicated situation but the Taoiseach has the power to fix it. Christmas is coming. I appeal to the Taoiseach to step in and organise a resolution of this dispute.
This is a very difficult issue. I will be meeting with Mandate shortly and we will see if we can find a way to try to progress a resolution of this issue.
The programme for Government contains a commitment to significantly improve people's lives with reference to the neuro-rehabilitation strategy. I have been contacted by 15-year-old Eabha Mansfield, and her sister, Ciara, who in the space of just a few months this year lost their mother to cancer, while at the same time their father suffered a heart attack. Their father is in University Hospital Waterford as he requires 24-7 care and assistance with feeding and dressing and he has issues with his memory. Scans have shown there is room for improvement. However, he remains in hospital, which is not suitable for his needs, and there is mention of him being transferred to a nursing home. His family are extremely concerned that if he goes into a home, he may never come out again. His daughters have been through a dreadful few months and their family lives have been changed forever. They desperately want to secure an urgent assessment to see if the National Rehabilitation Centre in Dún Laoghaire could improve his mind, memory and awareness. They are afraid daily that he may not remember them. Given the commitment in the programme for Government, can they be assured of a speedy assessment? Can the Taoiseach or the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, help this family? Eabha and Ciara deserve a break. I appeal to the Taoiseach to help them.
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. I am not familiar with the details of the case. The clinical assessment and recommendations of the doctors are key. Before anyone is transferred every potential avenue of rehabilitation within University Hospital Waterford should be availed of to facilitate the gentleman's recovery or the optimal care for him. I presume the clinicians are identifying a pathway for the patient.