Thursday, 19 November 2020
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
Ba mhaith liom cur leis an méid a dúirt an Ceann Comhairle. Tá súil agam go mbeidh saol fada sásta ag Brian agus é ag éirí as an phost.
The Ceann Comhairle might clarify to the House the position in respect of the switching of ministerial questions and the appropriateness of doing that without consultation with Members of the Opposition. We are hearing that the Minister for Justice has now pushed back her questions to December. Again, this is another way in which the Government is trying to refuse and deny the Opposition from raising questions on this matter. Maybe that can be clarified.
I want to ask the Tánaiste about a big election issue, one that was dominant during the election in February, which is the absolute runaway train that is the national children's hospital. We know this was a major issue that dominated a lot of conversation in terms of out-of-control costs and delays relating to the building of the hospital. We know it was the most expensive hospital in the world. Now the position has deteriorated since and it will cost more. The most expensive hospital is getting more expensive. We have no idea when it will be built.
I want to join the Ceann Comhairle in paying tribute to Brian and wishing him the very best in his retirement. It has been an unfortunate feature of the pandemic in recent months that we have been unable to experience the restaurant in the way we did before. He really did a great job and I hope he has a good retirement.
Deputy Doherty raised the matter of ministerial questions. I am informed that the questions schedule was changed because the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine has an EU meeting and there was a swap between justice and agriculture questions. That was agreed by the Business Committee. That was a change made in the normal way.
The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine could swap with any other Minister. This is about people in this House denying the Opposition a chance. They will not allow for a debate. The Minister has been scheduled to come in since way back in September.
The question on the children's hospital can only be answered by the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board. Everyone will know that the project is delayed. There are many reasons it is delayed. One of these is the delay caused by Covid-19. Then there are all the issues around the claims and disputes with the contractor.
The representatives of the board gave a good presentation the other day and were honest in their answers.
I wish to be associated with the good wishes to Brian McNamara.
I know the Tánaiste is trying to take the heat out of the Supreme Court issue regarding the appointment process, but his refusal to answer questions is unacceptable. He is not doing himself or his party any justice in relation to upholding the Constitution and he needs to reflect on that. I note he deliberately refused to answer specific questions relating to himself. He has denied that there is any other documentation outside of the Cabinet memo shared with Cabinet colleagues related to how judges are appointed. I note that and it is interesting. However, we will get there, slice by slice. It is unfortunate but we will get there. The document that was given to the Minister for Justice when she was appointed says that there is one appointment due to the Supreme Court. However, there are two. Will the Tánaiste outline why the decision was to appoint one and not two? Will the second one be filled?
I am happy to answer the Deputy's question on documents. The only document I ever saw in relation to this matter was the memo that was presented to the Cabinet. There may well be plenty of other documents but the only one I ever saw was the one shared with the Cabinet, which was the memo to appoint Mr. Justice Woulfe to the Supreme Court. There is another vacancy and the Government will fill that in the normal way.
I campaigned closely with parents of very sick children and with the Connolly for Kids group against the location of the national children’s hospital at the site at St. James's Hospital. It is frustrating to see that many of the concerns we raised at the time are coming to fruition. These concerns were relayed to the Tánaiste and to the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, unfortunately to no avail. Our calls and concerns were ignored. It is now clear that this project is a runaway train. Does the Tánaiste agree that it is time for the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to step in to control the costs that are ballooning with this hospital and to intervene to ensure the taxpayer gets good value for money and our children who are sick and need a good hospital to attend will have access to one?
I too want to raise this issue. It is a runaway train and I am delighted that Deputy Whitmore brought this up. We in the Rural Independents brought a motion in 2016 and another in 2019, when it was not too late. The Tánaiste chose the site for this, against Connolly for Kids, against the sick children and their parents, against the Jack & Jill Children's Foundation and against everybody. Now it has become a cancer in the body of the health situation. It is a deep black hole and nothing is coming up only murkiness. We have had Covid, Brexit and all the other distractions, including Mr. Justice Woulfe at the moment, but this is wrecking our health service and there is no accountability. The Tánaiste should be ashamed for having chosen that site. It is the wrong place and will never be the right place. One cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
The decision to choose St. James's Hospital as the location for the national children’s hospital was made on foot of an expert committee recommendation in, I think, 2012 or 2013. That was before I was health Minister and long before Deputy Harris was health Minister. I was a member of the Government that made that decision so I have to accept responsibility for it, but anybody who looks back at the record of the time will know what my view on it was.
I do not think it is a question of the Minister intervening. He is the Minister for Health and he is actively involved in stewarding this project. The statutory authority falls to the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board but that board is appointed by the Minister and he is actively involved in managing the project.
Will the Government act quickly to criminalise image-based sexual abuse and so-called revenge porn? As people may have seen, in the last number of days it has emerged that a group of men, it seems, collated thousands of pictures of over 500 women, apparently including some women under the age of 18, without their consent and shared them in a gross and disgusting abuse of those women. There is an online petition and campaign led by some of these brave women speaking out about this abuse. Over 25,000 people have signed it, calling for immediate action to criminalise image-based sexual abuse.
The use of revenge porn, sexual images or private images to get revenge on somebody is heinous and disgusting. I read about that. I was shocked that it happens and sad that people behave in such a way. I think it is wrong. I will check with the Minister for Justice about the legal issues around it. It may well be illegal already. If it is not, it would be appropriate for us to make it illegal. I will have to check with her as to what the current position is.
Page 75 of the programme for Government commits to:
Examine options for a pension solution for carers the majority of whom are women, particularly those of incapacitated children in recognition of the enormous value of the work carried out by them.
They do Trojan work and make great sacrifices. However, many carers cannot afford to set money aside for a pension fund. I welcome the fact that a pension solution has been committed to in the programme for Government, but we need to see those words turned into actions. With that in mind, will the Tánaiste outline what the current status of the pension solution for carers is and when it is likely to be introduced?
We want to find a pension solution for carers. Everyone in this House knows the value of the work carers do and we want to make sure they have a pension in their retirement. We appreciate there are many different types of carers: there are family carers, people who care for people who are not members of their family, carers who are in receipt of carer's allowance and carers who are not in receipt of carer's allowance. It is not an homogenous group by any means so there cannot be an homogenous solution. Some have a pension and others do not. That is why we have to look at all the complexities of this. One potential solution would be to allow people in receipt of carer's allowance to make a contribution to the State contributory pension. That is one potential solution. It requires a bit of work but we are committed to doing it.
Three weeks tomorrow, the Government took possession of the report from the independent Commission of Inquiry Into Mother and Baby Homes. Three weeks later, we see no sight of it. The legislation was rushed through the Dáil, much to the dismay of all of us in the Opposition. The primary reason given for that was that there would be no delay in the publication of the report. Cá bhfuil an tuarascáil anois? An bhfuil dáta di agus cén fáth go bhfuil moill léi?
Tá an tuarascáil leis an Ard-Aighne agus leis An nGarda Síochána. We are keen to see this report published without delay. A lot of people are waiting on it. It was provided to the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, some weeks ago but, before it can be published, he wants to make sure it is seen by the Attorney General and the Garda, so that nothing is done that could undermine future prosecutions, for example. I do not have a date. The legislation requires it be published as soon as possible and that is the intention of Government, but I do not have a date at the moment.
I raise yet again the issue of funding for the port access northern cross route for Drogheda. Numerous applications have gone in over the years and all have been turned down by the Government. We have been waiting for 15 years on funding for the northern cross route. The northern cross route is an integral part of the northern environs plan, which is a plan to see the construction of 7,000 homes on the north side of Drogheda.
Without the construction of this integral part of the plan, the plan is unsustainable. The northern cross route is vital infrastructure.
I understand that a decision on funding from the local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF, is due in the next few weeks. We have been waiting for 15 years, numerous applications have been made and people have grown annoyed. The houses' construction has been ongoing for years but the infrastructure is not there. The Government has responsibility for providing funding for vital pieces of infrastructure so that towns of Drogheda's size have the potential to prosper. That is called sustainable planning, which is what we hear Government representatives talking about day in, day out. Will the Government commit to providing money for the port access northern cross route in this round of funding?
I know this is an important issue in Drogheda, Ireland's largest town, for those living there and its business community. The matter has been raised several times in the House, including by my colleague, Deputy O'Dowd. A decision on funding is yet to be made and is a matter for the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, in respect of the LIHAF and the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Naughton, in respect of roads funding. I cannot tell the Deputy whether that decision has been made or when it will be, but I will let them know that she has raised the issue again and tell them of her strong support for it.
Anyone could have predicted that there would be a major uptake in the winter flu vaccine programme this year. The Government's winter plan even committed to a large expansion the scheme. However, GPs in Kerry are contacting me to say that they cannot get their hands on the vaccine. They believe it might be arriving at the beginning of December, but they are not sure. They need clarity. I am asking that the Tánaiste intervene to ensure that there is a supply as soon as possible.
The winter flu vaccine programme has been a success and more people in Ireland will be vaccinated against the flu this year than ever before. However, notwithstanding the fact that we ordered more doses than in previous years, demand has exceeded supply and we must prioritise those who are most at risk. There are more doses available, but they have to be prioritised for obvious reasons.
Unfortunately, we have not seen a great uptake in the flu vaccine for kids. This is disappointing. Only 20% or thereabouts of that vaccine has been used. It is a nasal vaccine for children. Unlike Covid, children are spreaders of the flu. We would like to see more kids availing of the vaccine. I would encourage parents to take their kids to the pharmacy or GP so that they and others can be protected.
The annual registration fee for nurses falls due at this time of year. Earlier this year, the registration fee for nurses who were returning to Ireland was waived. Any fee charged has to be approved by the Minister. Given the year that is in it, does the Tánaiste believe this is appropriate? We are approaching Christmas, but regardless of what the Government recommends, nurses will have a very different Christmas than the rest of society. The least the Government can do is waive the registration fee of €100 this year. Does the Taoiseach agree?
I am very definitely the Tánaiste and am happy to confirm that for anyone who has not worked it out by now.
The fee is approximately €100. It is paid to the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland, NMBI, and covers the board's administrative costs. There have been calls from some people to waive the fee. I agree that it would be a really nice gesture and a further sign of appreciation to nurses for the work they have done in recent months, but it could not just stop there. What about junior doctors who pay their fees to the Irish Medical Council or paramedics who pay their fees to the Pre-Hospital Emergency Care Council, PHECC? There are many people who have to pay a fee to their professional body. We could not waive a fee for one group and ignore the others.
I wish to raise the case of workers employed by Rehab Enterprises in SMILES Newsagents. There are approximately 21 such workers, many of whom have disabilities. They have been put on notice that they will be made redundant. The company is refusing to share financial information, which is essential in this case. It is also refusing to engage meaningfully with the trade union. An established and agreed redundancy package of two weeks' statutory pay plus an ex gratiapayment of four weeks is in place, but the company is refusing to honour it.
The workers in question have disabilities and are being laid off in the middle of a pandemic. They are the group that is least likely to be able to find employment post this pandemic. Will the Tánaiste join me in calling on Rehab Enterprises to publish the financial information, engage with the union meaningfully, defer the redundancies until such time as that engagement has taken place-----
-----and the opportunity that was missed to honour the collective agreement in their case. Will the Tánaiste call on Rehab Enterprises to honour its agreement and engage meaningfully? I remind him that many of these workers have disabilities.
I am not familiar with the details of the dispute, but I am sorry to hear that people, in particular individuals with disabilities, are being laid off, given the difficulty they often have in finding work. Although I am not familiar with the dispute's details, I would encourage Rehab Enterprises to engage with the union, which would be the right thing to do, and honour any collective agreement that has been made provided, of course, the company can afford to do so.
Page 51 of the programme for Government sets out an objective: "Task local authorities to work with ... [various stakeholders] and Age Friendly Ireland on the development/redevelopment of older-person housing." Every effort must be made to ensure that older people live in their communities for as long as possible. I am thinking of my 90-year-old uncle and his wife, who live independently in the town of Portarlington in County Laois. There are many others who would love to live in their communities and we must consider their needs when planning housing developments and devising county development plans. It cannot be a case of out of sight, out of mind. What discussions have taken place with local authorities to advance the cause of public and affordable homes for our older people?
I might ask the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to give the Deputy a full reply. He will be able to give a better response than I can. Ensuring more housing is built that is suitable for older people is part of the Government's programme, in particular easily accessible housing that is near the centres of villages or towns, services, churches and shops, thus allowing older people to move to that accommodation and free up their current housing, which is often family housing that could more appropriately be made available to families.
There is a nationwide dispute involving dentists. People with medical cards have been told that, as of 1 January, their cards will not be accepted as payment. Many of them cannot avail of dental treatment otherwise. Will the Tánaiste provide an update on the negotiations with the dentists and is the dispute close to being resolved?
I have been contacted by several constituents who have received letters from their dentists stating that the latter are withdrawing from the medical card scheme. This appears to be widespread. I have heard from dentists who have told me that the issue of personal protective equipment, PPE, is the straw that broke the camel's back. They say that the dental treatment services scheme, DTSS, has not been increased since 2007, is a sham and is not fit for purpose. Practice owners will survive without the medical card scheme, but dental nurses and associate dentists will not have jobs and patients will not have free dental treatment. Many practices donated PPE to the HSE and others in the early stages of the Covid pandemic on the understanding that it would be returned to them, but that did not happen. They say that the scheme is collapsing. Will these issues be addressed as a matter of urgency?
The Irish Dental Association stated within the past fortnight that 260 dentists had removed themselves from the scheme. It has already been said that the PPE issue was the straw that broke the camel's back. The DTSS is not working. A large number of medical card holders will not be able to avail of proper dental care. A review of the dental care system is required. I raised this matter with the Tánaiste previously. Will he update us? It needs to be addressed as soon as possible.
I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue. I do not have an update at the moment, but I will ask the Minister for Health to provide one to the Deputies. I understand that there is an engagement involving the Irish Dental Association, the HSE and the Department of Health. I hope that the issue can be resolved.
The decades-long lack of investment in education in towns like Bandon has this year led to the Bandon secondary school catchment area facing a crisis once again.
I raised this on Leader's Questions in 2017 and every year since. The Minister who took the question in 2017 announced a big investment for St. Brogan's College in Bandon which would alleviate the waiting list. Up to 80 families have been refused entry to the school this year, which is at double the capacity. Children cannot attend Hamilton High School in Bandon due to overcrowding.
I spoke to many parents last week who are facing the same nightmare as last year. Many were told by the education board last year to educate their children at home or take them to secondary school in Cork as there would be no room in Bandon. Can the Tánaiste guarantee me, on behalf of the people of Bandon, that the school will be able to accommodate their children September? Can a complete assessment of educational needs be carried out so that plans can be put in place for a new stand-alone secondary school in Bandon, similar to Kinsale, Bantry and Skibbereen, which can cater for up to 2,000 children?
I know there is a lot of pressure on school places in Bandon and the surrounding area. It is something that Senator Lombard has spoken to me about. I will have to ask the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, to give the Deputy an update. It is always the case that we can find a school place for all children. It is not always possible for them to be accommodated in the school of their first choice. I will ask for an update on that for the Deputy.
Elite national sport has been imported during this pandemic. Yesterday, the chairman of Sport Ireland came before the Joint Committee on Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht. He said the high performance strategy would be published shortly. Can the Tánaiste outline why there is a delay as it is in the programme for Government? Apparently it is ready to go.
I have been contacted by the management of a small to medium sized nursing home in Tipperary. There are approximately 20 residents in the home. Unfortunately, it experienced an outbreak of Covid in early October and five patients died as a result. The nursing home has taken a significant financial hit as a result of the outbreak. The total cost of the outbreak, including hiring agency staff to alleviate the pressure placed on staff numbers and incurring additional Covid related costs, was €72,000. The nursing home received €33,600 in assistance from the State. This leaves a shortfall of €38,000.
The owner informed me that if a second outbreak was to occur, she would be left with no alternative but to have all patients admitted to hospital. The nursing home stuck rigidly to HSE advice and has no complaints about this. However, the cost of managing outbreaks like these are far in excess of the assistance nursing homes receive to do things right. I ask that an invoice system be introduced for the costs incurred for nursing homes like this which are privately operated but have a majority of residents under the public system. Nursing homes cannot be left at risk financially because they have done things right.
I thank Deputy Cahill for raising this important matter. There are schemes in place to help private nursing homes deal with outbreaks where they occur. Sometimes that involves staff being provided by the HSE and at other times it involves increases in the funding they receive under the nursing home support scheme. There may well be cases where that is not adequate. Perhaps if the Deputy wants to give me some more details on that or take it up with the Minister for Health we will see if anything can be done.
I have been contacted by concerned parents in Carlow who have asked if community pools and leisure centres will be permitted to hold swimming classes for children in primary school and if swimming lessons will be included in the list of controlled sports under further restrictions. We have wonderful community pools and leisure centres around the country and children's swimming lessons are a vital part of the school curriculum. What are we doing to provide guidance to schools?
As the Tánaiste knows, under level 2 community pools and gyms are able to open with restrictions. When we exit level 5, which it is to be hoped will happen shortly, it is very important that we take all of this into consideration because this is a huge part of the lives of children. We need to consider this matter under health and safety guidelines.
I want to pay tribute to all of the teachers and parents. This has been a challenging time for the people of Ireland. What will be crucial is all of us working together and giving proper information to the public.
I thank the Deputy. We will not know until the end of next week what level we will be at in December. As she said, under level 2 pools can open. I understand that they cannot under level 3. As the Taoiseach said, it is more likely that we will be at some form of level 3 rather than level 2. It is not that the levels are not closed to modification. It is something we will have to take into account when the Government makes a decision next week on what we can and cannot do.
The programme for Government contains a commitment to balanced regional development, in particular the delivery of sustainable transport solutions across the regions. Those transport solutions need to be sustainable from an environmental and economic perspective. We are making fundamental decisions as to how we invest in rail infrastructure, in particular in the west of Ireland over the coming years.
We are doing that without all the information we require. The former Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Shane Ross, commissioned a report on the viability of extending a rail service from Athenry to Claremorris on the long disused western rail corridor. He did not succeed in publishing that, despite the fact that it was presented to Irish Rail over a year ago by the consultants involved, which were paid a significant amount of money to carry out that review. With a new Minister for Transport in place, we have still not seen the findings of that report. If we are to make those investments we need to do so armed with all of the information necessary.
I thank the Deputy. I understand that report is with the Minister for Transport. I am sure he will publish it in the near future. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is very keen on the development of commuter rail in cities like Cork, Limerick and Galway. It makes a lot of sense. I know Deputy Cannon is an advocate of twin tracking and improving the services to Athenry and Oranmore. It is a good idea and where we should focus our rail investment.
As many businesses hope to reopen in December, a number of workers who are concerned about whether they will be able to access the pandemic unemployment payment should they lose work again next year have been in touch with me. An extension was granted to keep the pandemic unemployment payment open to new applicants until the end of the year. Will the Government extend that further to ensure that workers will have certainty should they lose work in the new year if restrictions are reintroduced? Nobody wants workers to be worried over the Christmas period about this. Can the Tánaiste provide certainty on the extension of the payment?
I thank the Deputy. It is a very fair question. I will have to check that with the Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys. My recollection is that the pandemic unemployment payment will stay in place until March of next year. It may not be open to new entrants from a certain point. We would all agree that if we go back into further restrictions in the new year we would not want people to be unable to avail of the pandemic unemployment if they lost their jobs for a third time, which would be an extraordinary thing to happen to anybody. I will contact the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and come back to the Deputy.
I am sorry for the six Deputies remaining, many of whom have sat here for quite a while, that we have not been able to get them in. If Deputies who are called stuck to their one minute and did not take excess time we would get in far more Members. When you are taking extra time, you are taking your own colleagues' time.