Wednesday, 16 December 2020
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 7, inclusive, together.
The role of the social policy and public service reform division is to assist me, as Taoiseach, and the Government in delivering programme for Government objectives and public policies and services which help create a socially inclusive and fair society. Specifically, the division assists the work of the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality and the associated senior officials' group established to oversee implementation of programme for Government commitments in the areas of social policy, equality and public services, including matters relating to arts and culture, children, justice, policing reform and community safety, disability, social inclusion, gender equality, direct provision, the Irish language and sport; the Cabinet committee on education and the associated senior officials' group established to oversee implementation of programme for Government commitments in the area of education and further and higher education; the Cabinet committee on health and the associated senior officials' group established to oversee programme for Government commitments in the area of health, including implementation of health reforms, including Sláintecare and the development of mental health services; and the Cabinet committee on Covid-19 and the associated senior officials' group established to assess the social and economic impacts of the potential spread of Covid-19 and to oversee the cross-government response.
A policing reform implementation programme office forms part of the division. This office drives the implementation of A Policing Service for our Future, the Government's plan to implement the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. The division also assists the work of the Civil Service management board which oversees Civil Service renewal; has departmental oversight of the National Economic and Social Council; advances Dublin's north-east inner city initiative, including through supporting the work of a programme office, programme implementation board and oversight group; assists the delivery of public service reform through membership of the public service leadership board and public service management group; provides me with briefing and speech material on social policy and public service reform issues; and participates in relevant interdepartmental committees and other groups.
A couple of days ago, the Central Bank published its second interim report on differential pricing in the insurance market, showing shockingly how this is being dealt with. The practice is ripping off people. Yesterday, we published legislation to deal with this. We ask the Government to engage constructively with this legislation to deal with dual pricing, not just in the insurance market but across a range of entities relating to bills for communications service providers and other utilities. It is completely unacceptable and needs to be outlawed.
As part of the Bill, we are also proposing to create a regulatory standard for customer service. We all know about the scandalous way that Eir and Vodafone treat people. We are trying to push this agenda on very quickly. Will the Government engage with the legislation by supporting it, amending it or whatever? It is needed in a timely fashion to deal with dual pricing and the lack of customer service across a range of utilities where people are being totally ripped off and treated shabbily.
I wish to raise the case of Shane O'Farrell. This December will be the tenth Christmas for the O'Farrell family without Shane. As the Taoiseach will know, the circumstances that led to his death have been very well voiced in the Dáil and Seanad in recent years. In 2018, the Dáil voted in favour of the immediate establishment of a public inquiry into the death of Shane O'Farrell and this was followed by a unanimous vote to the same effect in the Seanad in early 2019.
Instead of acting on the instruction of both Houses, the previous Fine Gael-led Government announced the establishment of a scoping exercise. Nearly two years have passed, and completion of the final report has been delayed for the fifth time. When announcing the establishment of the scoping exercise the former Minister for Justice and Equality committed to the completion of an interim report within eight weeks on the commencement of the exercise. The family noted that the Guerin report took weeks to complete.
We are coming up to Christmas. The efforts of the O'Farrell family have been nothing short of heroic. They have the majority support of the Dáil and the Seanad. We need a public inquiry into the death of this young man. We all support that. When the Taoiseach was on the Opposition benches, he led the charge in calling for that inquiry. When will we see the outcome of that scoping exercise and when will we have that public inquiry?
I did not get an answer to my previous question about vulture funds being allowed to evict people. I would appreciate an answer on that because it is happening in the teeth of Christmas.
On public sector reform, the Government has thrown a considerable amount of mud into people's eyes in response to the demands of the student nurses and midwives to be paid for their work on placement, to be respected for the role they played during the Covid pandemic and not to be financially punished with the shocking fees they must pay, meaning they are actually paying for the privilege of being exploited.
The Taoiseach's explanations to date have not responded to this point. The majority of the student nurses and midwives are saying they will leave when they finish their training because they have been treated so badly in their four years and because they are facing into an understaffed and under-resourced health service. The two things are directly connected. They regard their exploitation and non-payment as students as a precursor of what they will face afterwards and, of course, that is the truth. That is why the nurses went out on strike last year. Our health service is in a perilous state and our healthcare workers' morale is on the floor.
That is why the Government should stop repeating this nonsense that it will somehow compromise their education to remunerate them during their training. It should remove the burden of fees from them. It would actually allow us to recruit and retain these student nurses and stop them flooding out of the country when we desperately need them to stay and work in our health service.
KPMG is taking €4.6 million from the Debenhams liquidation pot. It is taking this money to pay itself, and to pay for lawyers - in some cases for court actions taken against workers - for security, leases and warehouses where it has stored the goods that it smuggled out in the dead of night in order to cheat the picketing workers. If the Government had intervened after 50 days, as opposed to 250 days, it would have saved the vast bulk of this expenditure. In my opinion, that money should have been used to top up the workers' redundancy.
Does the Taoiseach accept that it was a serious mistake on the part of the Government not to have a serious intervention at a far earlier stage? Does he accept that those moneys could have been saved if that had been done? Even at this late stage, the €3 million that has been set aside for upskilling and training, not the most appropriate for many of the workers who are already in training and some already at the very end of their working careers, should be put directly in to top up the redundancies, as the shop stewards have demanded and asked for.
I thank Deputy McDonald for raising the case of Shane O'Farrell and I reinforce her message to the Taoiseach. On several occasions, the Taoiseach met Shane's parents, Lucia and Jim, who are among the most inspirational people one could meet. They are now facing their tenth Christmas without their beloved son, Shane. As Deputy McDonald said, they have been seeking justice for Shane and for the wrongs perpetrated on their family to be addressed. The previous Government announced a scoping inquiry, which has been subject to several delays. The most recent information is that the retired judge intends to complete his report by, I believe, 21 January.
On behalf of my neighbours, the O'Farrell family, and the wider community in Carrickmacross, I ask the Taoiseach to liaise with the Minister for Justice to ensure that the outcome of the scoping exercise is published and completed by that date in January so that we can move on to the implementation of the resolution of the Dáil and Seanad for a full public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Shane O'Farrell's death.
We will constructively engage with the Labour Party legislation which is designed to deal with the issue of dual pricing. I pay tribute to the Central Bank for its report which did not pull any punches. It is not acceptable for the insurance companies to conduct their affairs in this manner. We will constructively engage with the Labour Party on its legislation and on the customer service dimension and the necessity of public utilities to give optimal service to customers along with transparency in everything they do.
Regarding the case of Shane O'Farrell, I have met Lucia, Jim and the entire family on a number of occasions. I pay tribute to Deputy John McGuinness, who has been with the family on their long journey, and Deputies Brendan Smith and Niamh Smyth, along with the other Deputies in the House who have raised these issues consistently. I have been in touch with the Minister for Justice and I am anxious that the scoping inquiry be brought to a conclusion as quickly as possible, so that we can then take a decision regarding an inquiry in the context of the output of the scoping inquiry, its analysis and recommendations and whatever additional information and guidance it will provide us with.
On the points made by Deputy Boyd Barrett regarding vulture funds, he will have seen that I did not get a chance earlier to respond because my time was short. I will engage with the relevant Ministers on that issue. Any behaviour of a nature which deprives other people of their rights is unacceptable. I will pursue that issue in respect of the legal framework governing the management of estates and complexes to ensure that people's rights are not transgressed and that there is no exploitation of any loopholes in a ruthless and inhumane manner.
On the point made by Deputy Barry, liquidations happen, unfortunately, and liquidators get appointed. They work within the law and sometimes within the framework of the High Court. Governments cannot intervene legally in how a liquidator might undertake its business. In this case, the Government did not wait for 250 days, as the Deputy implied. The Government has taken an interest in this case from the beginning. We have always been very clear though that there are, unfortunately, legal constraints in respect of, for example, the liquidation process itself, and the Revenue having to fulfil its legal frameworks in getting its revenue back from all employers. The Department of Social Protection must do likewise to ensure the Social Insurance Fund is properly funded. There are no easy ways to circumvent those laws. It is dishonest and disingenuous to suggest that there are because there are not.
The Government provides statutory redundancy in all situations where private employers fall down, whether it is a liquidation or whatever the circumstances. The Government, therefore, has actually stepped up the plate here. It is extraordinary and probably a feat of the propagandistic strengths of the Deputies that they have created the impression that the Government has not done anything. It is actually the opposite. It is the private sector which has failed here. The State, through statutory redundancy, put forward €13 million for the workers-----
The additional €3 million is again provided because we cannot just top up statutory redundancy for one case. There has to be consistency in its deployment across the entire system. The Deputy knows that of course, but that does not interest him in terms of how he pursues these issues.
I am coming to that issue, but many Deputies have raised issues. I think I have dealt with the case of Shane O'Farrell, which was raised by Deputy Carthy. I have dealt with the issue of the student nurses on a number of occasions now. There is a review, which we want, and there is engagement between the Minister and the unions on this matter regarding the allowances. Fourth-year students are paid, as the Deputy knows. Regarding the first and second-year students, what I said yesterday and before that still applies. The Deputy has studiously ignored that for his own good reasons.
My view is that in the second wave of the pandemic there has been nowhere near the same impact on hospitalisation as there was in the first wave. The Deputy cannot say that the health service is under-resourced. An incredible level of resources has gone into the health service this year - €4 billion, of which €2 billion was for Covid-19 and €2 billion for additional services.
There is also an unprecedented ambition to recruit thousands of extra staff. This year alone, 1,400 extra whole-time equivalent nurses have been recruited-----