Wednesday, 16 December 2020
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
I wish to raise the Debenhams workers again. Last night, they received proposals from the chairman of the Labour Court. Those proposals are massively disappointing for the workers and will be very little comfort to them. Many of the workers spent years working for Debenhams and they have protested for 251 days to get a fair and reasonable redundancy settlement. They are worn out, exhausted and heartbroken. The manner in which this dispute has been handled by Debenhams and also by KPMG and the Government does none of them any credit. It stands in marked contrast to the dignity and stamina of the workers concerned.
The fact is that workers have been left cruelly exposed by this Government and the previous Fine Gael and Fine Gael and Labour Party Governments. All of them have let these workers down.
The Government has not left the workers cruelly exposed, and no legislation will stop liquidations in the future. There are issues with regard to whether we can give greater protections to collective agreements. I have read Mr. Kevin Foley's report on this and the Deputy should as well. It is just playing politics to say it is the Government's fault. That is the easy thing to do. However, the Government was limited within the law.
The Government is the only party that stood up to the plate. We provided the statutory redundancy. Some €13 million has been paid in statutory redundancy payments, and as a result of Mr.Kevin Foley's report, the Government will provide an additional €3 million to support guidance, training, education and business start-ups for the former Debenhams workers. That is what we can do within the legal framework, unfortunately.
I wish to raise a local nursing home in Tipperary, the Dean Maxwell Community Nursing Home in Roscrea. There was a meeting yesterday between a number of Deputies, the HSE, the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and the Minister of State with responsibility for older people. This is a very passionate issue. There is a state-of-the-art public nursing home in Thurles and a new one is being tendered in Nenagh, but we must also provide one in Roscrea. This is the most important issue for the people of Roscrea at present because many of their loved ones have been in that nursing home. It is due to lose its long-stay beds because of a Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, report which will deal with a number of nursing homes in the forthcoming year and a half. If a proposal is put forward in the national development plan, which is being reviewed, to fund a new public nursing home either on the current site or on another site, will the Taoiseach consider it?
The Deputies are working together and we are working very closely with the mayor of the county, Councillor Michael Smith, a local man, whom the Taoiseach knows quite well. It would be a shot in the arm if the Taoiseach could confirm that this will be considered as part of the process, because it is a deeply worrying issue for the local people.
I am aware of the seriousness of this matter. Deputies Cahill and Lowry have consistently raised it with me, as has the mayor, Councillor Smith. I have been in contact with the Health Service Executive on the matter and I will speak again to the Minister for Health. I have spoken to him previously about this and I intend to engage further now. Given yesterday's meeting and its potential outcomes, I intend to talk again to the Minister for Health and the HSE. I will refer back to the Deputy in that regard.
With regard to the Debenhams workers, the Taoiseach has been asked when he will bring forward legislation to protect workers in such situations. He replied by saying that he has done what he can within the law. When will the Taoiseach change the law so the Debenhams workers and other workers in such situations are properly protected?
As has been stated in the House, the Tánaiste has initiated a review of the legislation on company law in respect of these issues. It is hoped that the review will be completed before the end of the year. I would caution though, that the review in itself may not be a panacea for what happened in the Debenhams case. Clearly, it is not directly applicable to Debenhams. The area I am most interested in is to see what prioritisation can be given in a liquidation scenario where there are sustainable and clear collective bargaining agreements?
The €3 million offer for retraining is an insult to Debenhams workers. The failure by the Government to ensure justice for these workers is appalling. I remind the Taoiseach that he said he could not put money on the table because it would set a precedent. A sum of €18 million is owed to the State by Debenhams. The Taoiseach did not mind setting a precedent when it came to bailing out banks to the tune of €64 billion. There was no moral hazard there, and no worry about the implications, but when it comes to workers who have worked for decades, who have done nothing wrong, and who are entitled to the two plus two agreed with Debenhams, we cannot underwrite them. We cannot guarantee to give them what they deserve, which is what even now the Government should do, and then it should pursue Debenhams. The Government is just standing idly by while saying there is nothing it can do for these workers, who are the most decent people one could imagine, and who have worked for this company, which has betrayed them cruelly.
I am sickened by the way Deputy Boyd Barrett leads people up the hill all the time, pretending there are easy simplistic solutions when he knows in his heart-----
Shareholders in the banks were not bailed out. The State took equity. The shareholders were not bailed out. That is not a popular thing to say, but it is a fact. Deputy Boyd Barrett never wants to hear the facts because he lives in a fantasy economic wonderland. If his party ever got into power, thousands of jobs would migrate from this country. That is the reality.
I said to Deputy Boyd Barrett that we would do everything we possibly could within the law. I accept that revenue and social protection is owed by the company, but they cannot just do a sort of side deal and forget the legal accountability to the State and to this House. The law was passed that they have to recover what is owed to them.
That is to protect the Social Insurance Fund. Why is the Social Insurance Fund important? It is so that the State can pay €13 million in statutory redundancy to the Debenhams workers-----
-----and to other workers who become redundant. It is about time Deputy Boyd Barrett had a bit of honesty in his presentation on these issues rather than just playing to the gallery every single day and pretending there is a great, easy solution if only the Government would do what it can easily do.
As the Taoiseach is aware, garden centres, nurseries, soft fruit growers and the horticultural industry in general rely to a great extent on the availability of milled peat. Bord na Móna currently has stocks of milled peat and a proportion of it was earmarked for the horticultural sector. Recently, it has become apparent that Bord na Móna has diverted a lot of peat to export markets. As a result of the curtailment in supplies, the horticultural industry is losing its crucial raw material of milled peat. This is endangering their business and has serious implications for sustaining jobs in the sector. In Tipperary alone, this current policy will damage and adversely affect 19 horticultural outlets, six major growers and put at risk 480 jobs. I ask the Taoiseach to review the use of peat in the horticultural sector. Its use in this sector does not involve pollution and can in fact go beyond the status of carbon-neutral and become carbon-friendly.
I take on board what the Deputy says and I will inquire further into it. As he is aware, there was a High Court judgment in 2019, which reaffirmed that commercial peat extraction, absent planning permission, constitutes unauthorised development and the onus is on operators to first regularise their past activity via the planning system. I do not say that necessarily applies here. Planning permission can then be secured before any recommencement of harvesting can take place. There are issues in terms of continuing to extract peat. In late November, the Government approved €108 million for Bord na Móna's large-scale peatlands restoration project, which will create and support 350 jobs in Bord na Móna and contribute to Ireland's target of being carbon-neutral by 2050. Commercial peat extraction is subject to a dual-consent process requiring planning permission. Sites of more than 50 ha require an integrated pollution control licence from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Taoiseach will have heard the song "It's a Long Way to Tipperary", but it must be an awful long way for him, because he promised me months ago that he would meet the task force in Tipperary, the Jobs4Tipp and March4Tipp groups and representatives like Councillor Anne Marie Ryan. Could he organise a Zoom meeting to deal with the issue of a ring road for Tipperary town? The motorway is coming at some stage but there are road works in the town which will cause bedlam for two more years. I urge the Taoiseach to meet this group. They are enablers. They want to be positive. They are working with Alison Harvey's task force, but we need joined-up thinking here. We badly need a ring road. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has committed to meeting the group as well, as has the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton. They need the Taoiseach to engage. They saw the commitment he gave. I accept that the Taoiseach has been busy, but will he please organise a Zoom call with those people and the other Deputies for Tipperary to try to push the project forward?
I have had many Zoom calls on many issues. In fairness, is it the Taoiseach's task to do every ring road in the country? We have a local authority, a Minister for Transport and a Minister of State at the Department of Transport, who is at the Cabinet table. We need to reflect on that. Am I now to actively-----
I take the Deputy's point. He will appreciate that things were hectic with Covid-19 and everything else. I will talk to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, and I will check out where the project is at.
It is the Taoiseach's last Leaders' Questions of the year. When he was elected Taoiseach six months ago in this venue, I raised the issue of the Shannon Group, the airport and the entirety of the group, and its centrality to the economic well-being of the mid-west. Since then, we found out that the entire western seaboard was disproportionately affected by the State's response to Covid-19. What is the plan to support aviation and tourism across the mid-west and the entire west next year? What is the plan for Shannon Heritage? The two sites that have opened are closing on 3 January. It is planned to open the sites again in April, but Shannon Heritage remains in the Shannon Group with a commercial mandate and the sites ill fit a commercial mandate because while they generate money, they generate money more broadly in the economy than they do within the group itself.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue, which is a very serious one. Other Deputies such as Deputy Cathal Crowe have raised it with me as well. I would like to discuss the matter further with the Deputy and other Deputies as well. I know the Minister has plans to support aviation in particular and the heritage sites and the evolution of the Shannon Group.
The Taoiseach and the Government continuously advise people to buy electric cars. They tell us that we have to do it. I know of one girl in Killarney, among several others, who bought an electric car. She lives in a housing estate. She has asked for a kerbside charging point because she has a lead coming out of her letter box which crosses the public footpath. She is afraid that she will be liable if someone trips or something happens with the lead on the public footpath. The council indicated it would provide a grant of €10,000 for the kerbside charging point, but the overall cost would be €26,000.
The council could not make up the other €16,000. The killer point for this customer is that she would have to pay €5,000 every year, €2,500 of which is a standing charge and €2,500 for a service contract. On top of that she must pay the provider for whatever electricity she uses.
This is a new one on me and I have not had a case like that presented to me before. I will speak with the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, about it. The Deputy should build a relationship with the Minister, although I know they come from different perspectives in the climate change agenda.
I raise with the Taoiseach Claremorris Boys' National School, which has had 16 confirmed Covid-19 cases. On Monday, out of 85 pupils due in, only seven turned up. The Department and the Minister's handling of the challenges presented by Covid-19 in that school is wholly unacceptable. I commend the huge collective effort by the board of management, the principal and teachers, the parents' association and the parents in ensuring the health and well-being of the children in the Claremorris area.
Nobody disputes the public health advice but removing the collective autonomy of all the local decision-makers without proper consultation is not acceptable. The heavy-handed approach by the Department must be replaced with local and effective engagement. There is no other way to deal with this matter in a meaningful way. The people of Claremorris deserve better.
The effectiveness of the interface between the HSE and the Department must be examined. The anxiety levels of the children in Claremorris is having an impact on their health and well-being. Is there a better way to do this?
The public health team had not recommended that the school should close. There must be a system. We have all deferred to public health advice. There is and should be local engagement between principals and public health personnel, and that improved in particular after the Hallowe'en break when the Minister with the HSE implemented a new system to bring about closer collaboration between principals and public health teams.
We must ultimately defer to public health guidelines. We will continue to engage as cases like this emerge and re-evaluate how advice is given. We cannot have a position where every school will make its own decision. Nationally, and from a societal perspective, we want our schools open and children back in school safely. We will evaluate what has happened here and if protocols must be amended or refined, that is fine. The public health personnel had not recommended that the school should close.
This Government has made a commitment to increasing the supply of social housing. This week, Sinn Féin councillors on South Dublin County Council delayed construction of 19 new build social homes in Clondalkin. The site is 100% public and the proposal is for 100% social homes.
At first glance it appears Sinn Féin was delaying these homes unnecessarily after extensive public consultation by one month to allow for further informal consultation. However, tweets yesterday indicate it is Sinn Féin's intention to delay these units not for a month but for months on end by linking this practically shovel-ready site to a whole other site with no drawings, design, permission or public consultation done.
This is a prime example of Sinn Féin's approach to housing; it is delaying the building of homes to keep the housing crisis on the agenda. Will the Taoiseach work with his Fianna Fáil mayor in South Dublin County Council to ensure he does not pander again to Sinn Féin next month and in order that we can deliver these much-needed homes?
I said earlier that given the crisis we have in housing, it is extremely important that shovel-ready schemes are given the green light. I am not aware of the local position and I do not know why Sinn Féin is opposing this plan or the rationale behind it. I am not au faitwith the specific details of every scheme and this particular one. We are in a position where we need houses built. The biggest challenge facing us over the next 12 months is not funding, resources or ideology as we are committed to both public and affordable housing, cost-rental and many other forms of housing. The issue will be the capacity to get supply up, schemes built and homes delivered to people who need them.
I raise the question of poverty. There were 160,000 people who needed support from St. Vincent de Paul last year and 50,000 of those people were in food poverty. Food poverty means the most basic need is not met in this rich country, where politicians, judges and former taoisigh get regular pay rises. There is no doubt the figures will be worse this year.
This is just one charity and there are countless charities, with every one representing a failure of the Government to provide the basic needs of our people. Poverty costs us €4.5 billion per year. The Government argues its hands are tied on gold-plated pensions and top-tier pay rises but are its hands tied when it comes to poverty or children having to go to bed hungry or living on handouts on paper plates on cold streets? Are the Government's hands tied or is its heart closed to this suffering? What is the Government going to do about poverty in this country because charities cannot pick up the pieces forever? I would like a straight answer. Poverty is real and it is pushing hundreds of thousands-----
To be fair to the Deputy, he had to finish his script. The social protection budget is unprecedented in its scale. It is an enormous provision that is necessary to help people in very difficult financial positions right across the board. The budget was particularly strong in measures targeted at those most vulnerable to falling into poverty. The expansion of the schools meals programme is an example, along with increasing child dependant allowances. To be fair to the Ministers for Social Protection and Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputies Humphreys and Michael McGrath, they worked to ensure funding was targeted to prevent those groups most likely to fall into poverty from falling into poverty. That will continue to be our focus.
I have previously raised the question of energy security with respect to gas and other power supplies. We currently have no gas storage in Ireland and we are 100% dependent on Britain for gas imports. Kinsale gas field is finished and there is a major decline in production at Corrib. There are now reports that EirGrid is experiencing difficulties dealing with peak electricity demand because of a lack of capacity. With an increase in renewable energy and the phasing out of peat and coal, what is our plan to back up the resilience of renewable power production?
I understand there is a tender to spend up to €250,000 on yet another security of supply report but there are already many recent reports, including from Government agencies and State-owned companies such as Gas Networks Ireland, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, etc. These reports point to the need to have another source of gas supply and storage. A floating liquefied natural gas terminal has been recommended as a cost-efficient and clean solution. Will the Taoiseach explore with the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, the setting up of a floating LNG terminal in Cork?
The future of the south-western seaboard is in renewables and offshore wind, which has the potential to create sustainable jobs well into the future. The Deputy should become a convert and support renewables. He should have a discussion with Deputy Christy O'Sullivan on such matters, as he has a genuine commitment to the climate change agenda.
The Deputy should take it handy.
In any event, the Deputy raised renewables and that is my response. Renewables are very important. I am not aware of how advanced the floating LNG project is. The Port of Cork is engaged in operations and has contracts with particular consortia. I have heard talk about LNG for 20 years from different private sector operators but it has never come to fruition.
The Covid-19 vaccine allocation strategy was launched last week but to the extreme disappointment of many, people with disabilities were not mentioned once in the plan. People with disabilities were and still are more negatively impacted by the pandemic than those without disabilities. Many were forced to isolate or cocoon at home which has had a very serious emotional, physical and financial impact on them and their families. Many are not in a position to participate in the so-called new normal involving social distancing, the wearing of masks and regular hand sanitising. This negative impact has lasted for ten months now and it is critical that it is not allowed to last one moment longer than absolutely necessary.
In England the registered Covid-19 death rate for people with disabilities is four times higher than the general population and people with a learning disability are dying from Covid at a much younger age than the general population. I do not think we have the equivalent figures for Ireland but I ask that people with disabilities be considered in the context of the vaccine plan.
I have noticed that there is a consistent theme emanating from Sinn Féin that the Government is discriminating against people with disabilities in the vaccine sequencing but that is not true. I accept that people will engage in politics from time to time but it is not a very nice form of politics to play that sort of line. The national immunisation advisory committee recommended to NPHET a particular sequencing for who should get the vaccine first. It recommended that older people in residential settings should receive it first. People with underlying conditions are high up on the priority list and that includes people with disabilities. Clinical decisions will be made, with the input of GPs, to determine the type of vaccine to be administered to people and when they should get it. This is not about politics or about the Government wanting to discriminate against one group or another. The national immunisation advisory committee has advised on the sequencing and the document is live. Hopefully the vaccines will come quickly and we will see a ramping up of vaccinations in the country. I want to assure people in the disability sector that there has been no singling out or premeditated decision to leave out one group and include another. That is not the way this works.
Today I received correspondence from the HSE which indicates that on 18 September and again on 16 October the executive wrote to SouthDoc and instructed it to reopen its facility in Blackpool in Cork. The HSE warned that it did not accept the closure of this facility because it increased the risk of unnecessary presentations being made to acute hospitals. If the facility at Blackpool is not reopened by 31 December, SouthDoc will be in breach of its service level agreement. SouthDoc receives more than €7 million from the HSE under that agreement. I have asked about this for the last three weeks on the trot and have been raising the issue since March. We now need an intervention because there is no SouthDoc service on the north side of Cork city. SouthDoc is getting €7 million for not providing a service.
I wish to speak on the same issue. Last week in the Dáil, the Minister for Health told me that the HSE had asked SouthDoc for a timeline for reopening. He said he would report back to the Dáil this week on that timeline. Has the Taoiseach spoken to him about this matter and is he in a position to enlighten us in that regard?
Obviously there are issues with SouthDoc in Blackpool but this is only Wednesday and tomorrow is Thursday; the week is not over. I will endeavour to have that timeline for the Deputies before the week is out.