Thursday, 17 December 2020
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
As this is the last sitting before the Christmas recess, I will begin by wishing the Ceann Comhairle and all the staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas a very happy Christmas. From ushers to staff in the Bills Office, the canteen and everywhere else throughout the complex, they do incredible work and deserve our thanks, particularly at this challenging time. I also wish my colleagues in the Dáil and the Irish people a very peaceful Christmas. While we must remain vigilant to the threat of Covid-19 to protect ourselves, our families, our communities and one another, this Christmas provides us some relief and comfort in what has been a difficult year. Guím Nollaig Shona agus athbhliain faoi mhaise do na Teachtaí uilig.
Unfortunately, Christmas can be a time of much worry for some. Household debt is a problem for many workers and families. Due to Covid-19, tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs and many families are now facing their most difficult Christmas in years. The choices facing them are stark. How can they make Christmas special for their families and still pay the bills? Do they buy presents or heat their homes?
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul has described this year’s annual appeal as one of the most difficult in its 176-year history in Ireland. Difficulties for some present opportunities for others and there are always those who are ready to take advantage, provided they can. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul and others have warned about the threat posed this Christmas by licensed moneylenders and the extortionate interest rates they charge. There are an estimated 330,000 customers of moneylenders, with an average loan size of €556. For many in financial difficulty, moneylenders provide an easy line of credit but at a high cost. Licensed moneylenders are permitted by the Government to charge an annual percentage rate, APR, of 187%. That increases to 288% when permitted collection charges are included. The Citizens Information Board has stated that this extortionate level of interest leaves many borrowers unable to pay for life’s essentials and creates a vicious cycle of repeat borrowing. The majority of these borrowers are women; many of them are lone parents.
On 6 December 2018, I introduced the Consumer Credit (Amendment) Bill. It would introduce a statutory cap on the interest that moneylenders can charge. It has passed Second Stage and will be considered by the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach next month in oral hearings as part of the next Stage. It has already received submissions from interested parties.
Ireland is an outlier when it comes to the extortionate interest rates these moneylenders are permitted to charge. Interest rate caps are applied in 21 countries across the EU, including Germany, France and Italy. Many of these caps were introduced because their countries believed that it was morally unjustifiable to charge ultra-high interest rates, especially against the most vulnerable and those least able to repay. Germany described such rates as lacking moral legitimacy. Finland described them as unconscionable. In Ireland, however, anything goes and the sky is the limit. That is not acceptable and should not be tolerated.
A statutory cap on the interest rates that moneylenders can charge is supported by the Social Finance Foundation, the Citizens Information Board, the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, the credit union movement and charities such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
Will the Government commit to working with the Opposition on this legislation? Can we see a new dawn in respect of moneylenders and the interest rates they charge? We have legislation that has passed Second Stage in this House and is before a committee. It can be improved on and I am open to suggestions. A cap needs to placed. Let us ensure that this is the last Christmas that moneylenders can charge up to 187% APR.
I thank the Deputy. I should mention that there are low-cost loans in place, for example, through credit unions. When I was the Minister for Social Protection, I established the "It Makes Sense" loan, which was a low-cost loan provided through credit unions. People could repay it through their weekly social welfare payments or, as was often the case, the household budgeting service. I am unsure as to whether the scheme still exists, but it was set up with the express purpose of providing access to low-cost loans, especially around Christmas, to people who needed them but would not normally get them from the banks or elsewhere.
I have not had a chance to speak to the Minister for Finance about the Deputy's proposed legislation in a while and I am unsure about what approach to it he wants to take. I do not have an objection to there being a cap on interest rates that were previously described as usury, that is, so high that they should have been illegal. When passing any legislation, however, we must consider the law of unintended consequences. While a law may be passed with a view to capping interest rates, there is a risk of an unintended consequence of creating a new, larger market for moneylenders. This is the type of balance we must get right in any such legislation.
I thank the Tánaiste for his comments on supporting a cap on the interest charged by moneylenders. I acknowledge that Fianna Fáil supported the legislation two years ago, and while the Tánaiste's Government of the time did not, I welcome his remarks now.
We need to deal with this issue. The Bill is under pre-legislative scrutiny by the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach. Numerous submissions have been received that address the point the Tánaiste raised, which is a concern we all have about whether the Bill would open a market for illegal moneylenders. I will cite the University College Cork report, which is the expert report in this regard, "However, there is no empirical and undisputed evidence that interest rate restrictions result in an increase in illegal moneylending." It points to how the UK stopped exorbitant pay day loans and this did not result in illegal moneylending. As the Tánaiste acknowledged, there would still be the avenue of the credit union movement.
We need to put some urgency and commitment into this matter. As the legislation's sponsor, I am open to accepting amendments and to its provisions being introduced on a tiered basis, but let us work collectively as a House to ensure that 2021 is the year when the interest rates of moneylenders are capped and we stop accepting that moneylenders can charge customers 187% APR. We know what happens at this time of year. Moneylenders prey on people's vulnerability. The pandemic has exposed that in a greater way. There is a duty on us as legislators to protect individuals from this type of lending activity.
I will take the matter up with the Minister for Finance and see what his thinking on it is. There may well not be evidence, but the absence of evidence does not necessarily mean it is not happening. As the Deputy knows, moneylending at extortionate rates happens off the books, which makes it inherently unofficial, and there will not be evidence unless someone comes forward and says it is happening. However, I have an open mind on this matter. It may well be the right thing to do in 2021 to say that no lender can charge an interest rate above a stated amount, but we need to bear in mind that, if we decide to do so in an attempt to put a stop to high interest rates in the official lending market, we could create a new market for moneylenders and make the situation worse. I appreciate what the Deputy is saying, his good intent in this matter and the evidence and advices he has provided.
I wish a happy Christmas to the Ceann Comhairle, his staff and all the staff of the Oireachtas for the incredible efforts they have made this year. I also wish my fellow parliamentarians, both in opposition and in government, the same. In particular, I wish the Government my best wishes on its first Christmas together, although it seemed like Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael spent many together before.
Unfortunately, I want to return to the appointment of Séamus Woulfe. More than 300 documents were released to me and also to The Irish Timeslast night. The Irish Timesreported that the newly appointed Minister for Justice requested the Woulfe appointment be brought to Cabinet on 6 July. By the Minister's account to the Dáil, that is a full five days before she consulted the Government leaders about it between 11 and 14 July, as required by the Cabinet handbook. How is it possible that a memorandum, which I have in my hands, could be commenced early in the morning and signed off at 11.17 a.m. on the day of a Cabinet meeting, five days before the Minister said she consulted the three leaders of the Government? A memorandum for the appointment commenced at 7.45 a.m. and was signed off by the Minister at 9.34 a.m. It was then pulled by the Department of the Taoiseach. The Minister for Justice, therefore, was intending to appoint the Supreme Court justice but she had not disclosed this to the party leaders, according to her own timeline. Her spokesperson, however, told The Irish Timesthat the Minister had been told it was urgent. Who told her it was urgent? Who tells the Minister for Justice the appointment of a Supreme Court judge is urgent?
In the Dáil, the Minister said a draft memorandum was submitted to her office on 6 July. It was beyond that; it was actually signed off by the Minister and put forward by the Department of Justice to the secretariat of the Cabinet, which is run by the Taoiseach. This was not told to us three weeks ago.
I have a number of questions for the Tánaiste. I appreciate this documentation only emerged last night. On what date did the Tánaiste tell the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, that Séamus Woulfe would make a good judge? Timelines are now becoming critically important. Prior to 6 July, who told the Minister this appointment was urgent? Most importantly, how could a Minister for Justice sign off on the appointment of a Supreme Court judge, Mr. Justice Woulfe, on 6 July and have a speaking note prepared on it when, by her account to the Dáil, she only consulted the three leaders of the Government between 11 and 14 July?
I am afraid I am not in position to answer the Deputy's questions. I have not seen these documents. The Deputy said there are 300 of them. I understand none of them relates to me or communications involving me. It is difficult to answer a question about documents I have not seen and do not contain any communications involving me.
From the documents and what I have read in the newspapers, I understand it was indicated that the appointment might be made at Cabinet on 6 January. In the end, it was not. There were several Cabinet meetings after that. The Minister for Justice had time and, indeed, consulted all party leaders and the Attorney General before making the appointment. The Deputy will know from his time in Cabinet that it is often the case that something is put on the agenda but then not taken or withdrawn for many different reasons.
My understanding is that the Chief Justice had written on several occasions asking that this appointment be made. He felt there was a vacancy in the Supreme Court that needed to be filled. As the outgoing Government, we took a view that we were not going to make that appointment and that it was a matter for the next Government. I might speculate that the source of the urgency was that this was an appointment that the Chief Justice wanted to be made.
In terms of the date, I do not know the exact date but I recall that, in questions that I and the Minister, Deputy McEntee, answered before, we gave the range during the period of dates where we would have had that conversation, which would have been, obviously, after her appointment as Minister for Justice and before that decision was taken to bring that appointment to Cabinet.
I genuinely appreciate the Tánaiste's honesty. I accept that this documentation is not related to him. However, this is a serious issue for the Government and these questions will have to be answered pretty quickly. I have a real issue here. One of the central themes of what the Minister continuously says is that she followed the Cabinet handbook to the letter of the law. If, however, she followed the Cabinet handbook, why, all of a sudden, very early on the morning of 6 July, did she start a process to bring a memorandum to Cabinet to appoint Mr. Justice Woulfe, considering the Cabinet handbook says she must consult the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Minister, Deputy Ryan? That is a complete contradiction. Second, subsequent to that, after this was pulled by the Taoiseach for some reason we do not know and which we need to know, why was the appointment of a Circuit Court judge added to the Cabinet agenda? Third, why did the previous Minister for Justice and Equality, in the middle of a general election campaign, ask for the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board, JAAB, to meet to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court, but went against the advice of his officials who felt there was not an urgency in the appointment of that position and that it would be unusual for Department of Government to make such an appointment?
Again, these are questions that do not involve me directly so they are difficult and impossible for me to answer. What I do know is that the memorandum was not taken to the Cabinet meeting on 6 July. It was two or three Cabinet meetings later that the memo was taken. At that point, the Minister for Justice had, of course, spoken to the Attorney General and all the party leaders, and came forward with one name which she recommended to Cabinet. That was agreed by Cabinet unanimously. I know from my experience as a Minister that it is often the case that one tries to get a matter on the Cabinet agenda and somebody comes back, maybe one of one's own officials or the Department of the Taoiseach, and says we are not ready for that, hold it off or carry it over. I do not know what the particular circumstances were in this particular case but I do know that appointment was not made on 6 January. Several Cabinet meetings passed before it was made.
On behalf of the Social Democrats, I wish the Ceann Comhairle, all Members and all Oireachtas staff a happy and restful Christmas. It has been a rough year for everybody and that includes everybody associated with the Houses of the Oireachtas. Let us hope for better times in 2021.
I raise with the Tánaiste an interview Mr. Paul Reid did on the "This Week" programme last Sunday. He was asked about a contract worth €14 million that the HSE had entered into for ventilators. It seems there were serious problems with that purchase. As I understand it, the ventilators have never been used in a clinical setting. There were quality issues about the ventilators in question. That raises a large number of issues. I fully accept that this was a pressurised period. Everybody was stressed about the situation and there was a rush to get medical equipment. It raises questions, however, about procurement and financial controls, and those are important at any time.
One must wonder how this contract came to be placed. It was placed with a company called Roqu, which had previously only been known for event management and organising festivals in the Middle East. It had a residential apartment address in Dublin city centre and one employee, who was the owner of the company, Mr. Robert Quirke. How much does the Tánaiste know about the awarding of this contract, which resulted in the taxpayer being caught for huge figure of €14 million? What does he know about contacts between the owner of the company, Mr. Quirke, and the HSE? Who contacted whom? Was there any contact regarding this with either the then Minister for Health, the Tánaiste, who was Taoiseach at the time, or anybody else at a political level? How did it come about that contact was made and then the subsequent order was placed? There are serious concerns about this and how it came about. What approvals were required? Were political approvals required for placing that order? I would appreciate if the Tánaiste could answer those questions. We know that a subsidiary of the company in question, another Roqu company, went on to do the testing in County Roscommon and was also involved in developing the health passport app. One wonders how these contracts were awarded to a company with no history and, apparently, no expertise in the health products area.
As the Deputy rightly said, that was a pressurised period. There was a rush on to procure personal protective equipment, PPE, and ventilators and we were seeing what was happening around the world with countries short on PPE and staff getting the virus and dying from it in some cases. We also saw what was happening around the world with a shortage of ventilators and what that meant in New York, London and other places. Thankfully we never got to that situation in Ireland. There was a rush on to buy necessary equipment.
When it comes to contracts, procurement and so on, that is done at agency level not at a political level. I do not have any particular recollection of any involvement in any contracts related to ventilators but I would have to check my records on that. At the time, we were getting a lot of offers of help. Deputy Shortall and other Deputies would have got those offers and I would have got them from Deputies. Any time I got those offers I passed them on to the agency. I certainly would not have got involved in discussions over money. Perhaps others did but I do not recollect that happening so I would have to check up on it. Like I said, there was a rush on at the time to get ventilators quickly.
Many of us would have engaged with the major companies. I remember engaging with Medtronic on ventilators because it is a major company in the west of Ireland making ventilators and exporting them. We wanted to make sure that we got our fair share of them for Ireland.
I appreciate that the Tánaiste may not have been prepared for this but I would appreciate it if he would check the records. I accept that many people made contact offering help and business opportunities. It is important to know where that contact came from, given the background of the company and how it came to pass that such an important order was placed with a company that ostensibly had no expertise in this area whatsoever. I would appreciate it if the Tánaiste would check for contacts, either with himself, with the then Minister or with anybody else, and if he would check how the contract came to be awarded or the order to be placed.
I also want to raise those issues again which have been raised with me by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL. There are serious data protection concerns about the testing project in Roscommon and the development of the health passport app. Both of those projects involved an element of health research that was retaining personal information and it would appear that there is not compliance in relation to data protection. I ask again that the Tánaiste would raise this with the Minister for Health to provide an assurance that everything is above board in this respect. It is hard to know how a company with that kind of background can come in, get projects like this, be approved and be allowed to operate, using this new app that it has developed with question marks over the security and data protection issues associated with it.
I will raise this with the Minister for Health. I do not personally recall any contact with that company but as I said at the time, we were inundated with people who were offering to help out. We got some legitimate offers and some quite suspect offers. We even set up a website at the time to which people could submit their offers and so on. I imagine that anything provided to anybody in a political role would have been passed on to the HSE, as the relevant authority for procurement.
On behalf of myself and the Regional Group, I would like to wish the staff of Leinster House and the Ceann Comhairle a happy Christmas and new year.
Just over a year ago, as a political outsider, I stood outside Leinster House with Hand on Heart campaigners. We delivered thousands of petitions to the Tánaiste's then office as Taoiseach on the funding issues around University Hospital Waterford, most especially the lack of 24-7 cardiac care for the south-east region. The problems in service delivery at University Hospital Waterford predate Covid-19. We continue to have some of the longest waiting lists in the country for all types of services, including: magnetic resonance imaging, MRI, scans; computed tomography, CT, scans; mammograms; endoscopies; ear nose and throat, ENT, treatment; orthopaedics; and ophthalmology.
When we ask the HSE for progress, it delivers us process. I mention the mortuary build of 2015, which the Tánaiste is well aware of. It has taken four calendar years to award a build tender of €5 million for a second cath lab. It is six years into the South/South West hospital group structure and still there is no move on bringing the Kilcreene Orthopaedic Hospital activity into University Hospital Waterford, as promised. It has taken us nine months to re-enact a three-day diagnostic angiogram list on site. We look at the national children's hospital spend of €2 billion. We look at the recent announcement in Cork of €70 million in imminent planning for a second children's hospital. We look at our Dunmore wing, which was completed in April 2018 but had no service budget applied until Covid-19 arrived. The palliative care services there, which were part-funded by Waterford Hospice, only received a grant of funding in recent weeks.
In line with recent trends, the HSE announced 12 new consultant appointment positions for University Hospital Waterford but they are not on www.publicjobs.ienor have they been approved by the consultant appointments committee. In other words, they are not coming for at least another 12 to 24 months. This is more process with no progress.
The present cardiac services remain the most toxic health issue for the south-east region. The hospital is planning to engage a phased introduction of a seven-day 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. cath lab service. This will basically give us 50% cover per working week. Last year, I spoke about people like Thomas Power, Una McDermott and Thomas Frisby, who could not access the cath lab on a weekend and died. Thomas Frisby's family has three healthcare workers and one of his siblings required access to the cath lab in the past ten days. They asked the question, which I ask of the Tánaiste, when will we see equality in the south east for 24-7 cardiac care?
We have heard major discussion this year on locking down the country to protect life. We have heard major discussion on equality for Ireland and for its people. On behalf of the Government, will the Tánaiste give a commitment to politically deliver increased funding to University Hospital Waterford and to deliver 24-7 cardiac care equality to the south east? We do not want any more reviews, procrastination or process in place of progress.
I know this issue has been a contentious one and is a matter of real importance to the people of Waterford and of the south east more broadly and has been for a long time. The programme for Government commits to the provision of a second cath lab in University Hospital Waterford. As set out in the HSE's options appraisal, the preferred option for a second cath lab and associated 12-day ward providing six additional beds, is on the roof of the existing cardiology department in Waterford. I know from working with Government Deputies in the county that the ultimate ambition is to achieve 24-7 primary percutaneous coronary intervention, PCI, cover if that is viable. The second cath lab is a major and significant step towards doing exactly that.
Funding was allocated in the capital plan for the provision of a second cath lab at University Hospital Waterford. Planning permission was received from Waterford City and County Council in January of this year. The disability access certificate was granted in April and the fire certificate was granted in June. Preparation of contract documentation commenced and contractor selection is complete, subject to a cooling-off period. The project went to tender on 30 September. The tender process being used is a two-stage process, which normally takes about four months to complete. Tenders for the main contractor were received on 24 November, while tenders for the mechanical and electrical subcontractors are due on 21 December. The works at the new cath lab are due to commence in the first quarter of the new year. It is expected that it will take about 12 months to build and then it is anticipated that it can be commissioned and opened and operating in the first half of 2022.
As I said, the Taoiseach said in recent days that this was not a resourcing issue but that this was to do with academic allegiances, reviews and all of that. I am saying to the Tánaiste that this is a political issue. We have six cardiac rescue centres in the country, two of them in Dublin. The only one to serve the 600,000 people of the south east is constrained to a 39-hour working week.
Sometime next year in a phased operation we will get to seven days, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. This is not good enough in the Ireland of 2020. As I said, we are expending huge amounts of resources to try to support people through Covid. The cost of a 24-7 service in UHW is estimated to be in the order of €3 million per annum. I am asking the Tánaiste to set aside reviews, to assuage the concerns of those people who live every night with vulnerability because of underlying issues and to deliver health equality for the south east.
As the Deputy will be aware, the trend across the world when it comes to specialty services, such as complex cancer surgery or primary PCI, is to reduce the number of centres in order to have a smaller number of centres with a large number of staff able to sustain a 24-7 rota permanently, and a large patient load to achieve a certain level of standard. The Deputy mentions that there are two centres in Dublin. There were three centres. We went from three centres in Dublin down to two, and those two centres cover a population of probably 2 million people, all the way from the Border with Northern Ireland down to Kilkenny and north Wexford. It is roughly one centre per 1 million people. I appreciate that the Galway and Limerick centres cover a smaller population. Those are always the things that have to be borne in mind.
As I say, the first step to improving cardiac services in Waterford, which we want to do, is to build the second cath lab, which is long overdue. I understand the frustration in this regard. That will be under construction next year. It should be open and up and running the year after, and will allow us to extend the hours of that service, not only for Waterford but for the whole region.^ Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation^
Before proceeding to questions on promised legislation, I thank all the Members for their good wishes and express the hope that everybody in the Oireachtas community will enjoy a peaceful, restful and happy Christmas with their families. I thank, in particular, the leaders and all the Members of Dáil Éireann for their courtesy, co-operation and support throughout the year. We managed not to fall out with anyone, I think, in the course of the past 12 months.
On the Members' behalf, I extend a very sincere thanks to the Clerk of the Dáil, Peter Finnegan, and the Clerk Assistant, Elaine Gunn, who is here in front of me. We are blessed in the calibre of people who we have working in the service of the Oireachtas, whether in an administrative capacity, as ushers or in the catering service, right across the whole spectrum. That was borne out to us particularly this year as they successfully managed the transition from Leinster House to the national convention centre here. At a time when 75% of the Oireachtas staff were working from home, the work of the House continued without a glitch, and even though seven of our community suffered from Covid-19 in the course of the year, we succeeded in keeping the service intact. I thank the service most sincerely.
I extend a word of thanks as well to Dermod Dwyer and the team here at the national convention centre. This is a wonderful resource for this country and we are fortunate, as an Oireachtas, to have had this facility available to us.
One could be forgiven for forgetting that this is a year in which we had a general election. It seems a very long time ago. Elections are always very stressful times for politicians. On top of the stress of that election has come the worry and deep concern that we have all had for our people and our country afflicted by an unprecedented pandemic. On top of that we have had, all of us, in various ways, to contend with the impending debacle that is Brexit. I ask Members over Christmas to take some time for themselves, look after themselves and their families and come back to face the mighty challenges that will be there in January refreshed and invigorated.
I remind the House that there are 22 Members seeking to contribute on promised legislation. I will try and get through everyone today if Members are quick. I call Deputy Pearse Doherty.
I echo all the Ceann Comhairle's comments in relation to the staff and the good wishes.
I want to return to the appointment of Mr. Justice Séamus Woulfe. The revelations this morning in The Irish Timesare, indeed, shocking. They are shocking for this reason. The Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, informed us in the Dáil on 26 November that she got the memorandum on 6 July. The Minister stated:
What I did, therefore, was not bring it [to Cabinet] immediately, even though I had been told that this was urgent. I took time to look at the JAAB recommendation, and it is a recommendation because it states that in the letter and in the relevant section of the legislation referring to JAAB. I looked at all the names that had come through the expressions of interest process, and then there was obviously a list of sitting judges. They had not expressed an interest, however, so that was something which is looked at last. Following that process, I spoke to all the leaders, as I have outlined in the timeframe, and, based on their responses, I made a recommendation. It is a very clear process.
That is a clear process that the Minister outlined but what the Minister failed to outline is that she looked at the recommendation. The Minister looked at the list, a list that came through JAAB which had-----
-----Mr. Séamus Woulfe on it, five other judges on a separate list and pages of other lists, and within minutes she decided, and the only person she consulted, or spoke to, before that was the Tánaiste-----
The appointment was not brought to the Cabinet on 6 July. It was not brought until several weeks later. During that time, the Minister had ample time to consider all the names and also to discuss the matter with me, the Taoiseach, the leader of the Green Party and the Attorney General, which she did.
Fantastically, the President of the European Commission, Dr. Ursula von der Leyen, announced an hour or so ago that EU citizens will be vaccinated from 27, 28 and 29 December. Will the Tánaiste give us all a bit of Christmas cheer and tell us on what date we will start the vaccination programme here in Ireland? Will it be 27, 28 or 29 December? On top of that, has the Government decided what it will do in relation to vaccine certificates or vaccine passports? Will this be run by the State or by private organisations whereby they want to have certificates? There are huge moral, ethical and legal issues here as to whether this should be allowed. Has the Government taken a position for event management and large occasions whether certificates will be considered later on this year?
I can confirm that it is anticipated now that the European Medicines Agency will meet on Monday and will approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and that will allow the first people in EU countries to receive the vaccine on 27, 28 and 29 December.
I cannot say exactly which date will be the case in Ireland but we expect that the first people in Ireland will be vaccinated before the new year. I cannot give the Deputy an exact date. They will be given evidence of the fact that they have had the vaccine but at present I cannot tell the House exactly what the format will be.
The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA, is a mixed agreement which means that there can be multiple components. In this case there are two components - the trade component, which is in operation since 2017 and will continue in operation, and the investor courts component, which is the bit that is highly controversial and about which there are concerns that it will lead to an undermining of governments' ability to make decisions on behalf of their people in case they get sued for future profits.
The investor courts component is the component that we have to vote on and that was to go before the Dáil last week. That component requires all member states to sign up to it. Currently, France, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovenia and ourselves have yet to sign up to it. I am wondering what is the rush in the Government wanting to sign up to this when the trade agreement is operating separately. What are the benefits to it? Will the Government commit to a risk analysis prior to any debate in the Dáil?
There are 200 countries in the world and Ireland is probably in the top 20 in terms of wealth and living standards. That is not because we have fabulous oil wealth or gas or diamonds.
We have to pay our way in the world. That means we have to produce goods and services and we have to trade them internationally. That is why we are a relatively wealthy and prosperous country. There is nobody in the world willing to pay us a basic income. Accordingly, our jobs and our economy are dependent on trade, on what we produce and on the services we sell abroad. That is why it has always been our policy to have a pro-business environment, one that attracts investment and to be an early adopter of trade deals. That sends out a clear message that this is a country open to trade and investment. We want to be one of the first countries to ratify trade agreements, not the country that is late or holds it up. That is why it is to our advantage.
On CETA and the investor court system, under the revised text, the right of member states and Canada to regulate public policy, such as health, environment and security, is fully preserved. It is made clear that the deal does not imply an expectation that public policies will remain unchanged and an investor's loss of profits will not be sufficient grounds for making a claim against a government. Any claim must be based on discrimination and unfair treatment.
Can I join you, a Cheann Comhairle, in extending best wishes for Christmas to everybody in the House, particularly to the service officers, the ushers and the Oireachtas staff for all their hard work in a difficult year.
It seems Christmas started early for the Taoiseach yesterday when he entered into a winter wonderland fairy tale where the bank bailout never happened and the €17 billion was never taken out of the pension reserve fund to bail out the banks. Neither was cruel hardship and austerity imposed on large numbers of people which resulted in a housing crisis and the massive understaffing of health service, of which we are still suffering the consequences.
The programme for Government has a shared future. Does that extend to a shared acknowledgement of the past reality that people have suffered and the reality of the bank bailout? Will the Tánaiste correct the Dáil record to show that there was in fact a bail out of the banks-----
There was a bailout of the banks 12 years ago. The Taoiseach misspoke yesterday. He said that himself this morning. In fairness, he corrected himself quickly in the Dáil yesterday. What he meant to say was that the banks' owners, the banks' shareholders, were not bailed out. Those who owned the banks and those who had shares in the banks lost all, or almost all, of their money. Some were very wealthy people; some were not. Some were just everyday people who bought bank shares as part of their pension. We need to bear that in mind.
The banks were effectively nationalised. Sometimes what happens when one is a Minister or in politics is that people say to one that they would like their sector bailed out like the banks were. What they often do not appreciate is that would mean the State would seek to own that sector. For example, if we were to bail out the fishing industry, like the banks were bailed out, we would become the proud owner of all of those boats. If we were to bail out the farming sector, like the banks were bailed out, we would become the owner of all of those farms.
Every week at least one convicted sex offender comes to the attention of the Garda because they are not living at the address they have given to the authorities. In most instances, this is the only condition with which they have to comply due to our so-called sex offenders register following their release from prison. The fact is that the sex offenders register is little more than a fig leaf. It is only when a convicted offender comes to the attention of the Garda for some other reason, they are charged with a breach of the only condition that is put on them post their release.
Will 2021 be the year when at long last the 12 years of political promises will turn into action and the Sex Offenders (Amendment) Bill will be enacted to provide real protection to children, women and vulnerable adults?
I acknowledge the Ceann Comhairle's good wishes. On behalf of the Rural Independent Group, I thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, Peter Finnegan, Elaine Gunn, and the whole team here, everybody in the community, for what has been done during this difficult year and wish them well for Christmas. I also thank the Garda Síochána who are outside in all weathers minding us. It has been a trying year.
There are fabulous plans and designs for Clonmel Garda station which are on public display. We have a site in the old Kickham Barracks, a fine site and ideally located, for which the plans fit in neatly. When will we have a proper Garda station fit for purpose? The superintendent, William Leahy, Sergeant Kieran O'Regan, and his community team, excelled during Covid with the work they did with the community. When will we get some movement on this station? This has been going on for 60 years. We have the plans and the site. All we need is the go-ahead. By go-ahead, I mean sod being turned and machines on site. We had so many promises and false dawns. The Garda in Clonmel deserve to have proper facilities, as do the public. The current station is Dickensian and must be put right.
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue of Clonmel Garda station. He has raised it with me several times before, as has Senator Garrett Ahearn and Deputy Cahill.
I do not have a date for the beginning of the project but I will certainly let the Minister, Deputy McEntee, know that the Deputy raised it this morning. We will try to get him an answer as soon as possible.
I want emergency funding for Sligo Airport to continue its search and rescue operations and its emergency medical evacuations for a region that stretches from Clifden to Belfast. I direct this question specifically to the Tánaiste because he quite rightly supported €750,000 funding to Waterford Airport in 2018 to supply similar services. Waterford is a bit like Sligo in the sense that it has had no passenger flights since 2016. I wish the airport good luck as it provides an emergency service. So does Sligo, however. It has been the busiest search and rescue base for the past three years in the whole country and yet Sligo has not got one cent of Exchequer funding from the Government for the past decade.
The Irish Aviation Authority has mandated certain infrastructural works to be completed by the end of January 2021. Up to €500,000 is required for this. The airport itself can supply €200,000 but we have nothing from the Government. There are 47 jobs there and it is an essential regional service. Will the Tánaiste give a commitment to this regional service?
I also want to re-echo the Ceann Comhairle's good wishes to all.
I will have to check into that matter for the Deputy. The Coast Guard search and rescue service is based in Sligo Airport. I cannot imagine it could be moved anywhere else. It is essential, therefore, that the airport continues to operate for the Coast Guard. Perhaps it could be moved to Knock but I doubt it. Sligo Airport will have to be provided funding, if it needs it, to keep that service up and running. I will take it up with the line Minister.
I neglected to join colleagues in offering my best Christmas wishes to everyone in the House. It has been an unprecedented year, a year like no other. I hope that next year we will see us return to Leinster House where we are all keen to get back to as soon as possible. I want to give my thanks to the Ceann Comhairle, his staff and all of the Oireachtas staff, most of whom have been working from home for months. They have put in a fabulous effort to make sure that we have been able to function, largely as normal, for the past couple of months. I want to thank them in particular at this time.
That is appreciated.
We will now go back to names carried forward from yesterday. Is Deputy Richmond here? No. Is Deputy Carroll MacNeill here? No. I call Deputy Bruton who I see up there in the back.
I want to raise the review of the leaving certificate. The Tánaiste will have seen that many of those who sat the leaving certificate recently called for an accelerated reform of it. The reform of this started five years ago. The OECD reported just last week that the leaving certificate structure undervalues apprenticeships, is too narrow and rigid and is out of kilter with our ambitions for the nation. Will the Tánaiste set about accelerating this reform because its progress was stalled, understandably, during 2020? We need to get it back on track and make it relevant for young people's futures.
The Deputy is right and we need to deal with that.If I recall correctly, the plan was to reform the junior cycle first, get that done and move on to reforming the senior cycle. I am not sure if the two can be done concurrently.
Perhaps they can. The leaving certificate as an exam has served us well. I have spoken to a lot of fifth year and sixth year students who now say to me they would much rather sit the leaving certificate next year than have predictive grades, which says something significant. It is a trusted exam. It might be brutal on occasions but it is fair. Much of it is based on rote learning and it is out of date and undervalues apprenticeships and other things, as the Deputy said.
Despite the massive efforts of everybody involved in our school communities in Kerry to try to contain and keep out Covid-19, unfortunately we have seen a significant outbreak of Covid in the mid-Kerry school catchment area. In particular, one school in the mid-Kerry area is reporting extremely serious figures and each pupil and member of staff in that school has been asked to stay at home and get tested. In this context, there is huge worry in the mid-Kerry area that there will be contagion throughout the school network. We have three post-primary schools and a large number of primary schools in the network. I have to declare to the House that my two little boys are part of the network. Will the Tánaiste ensure this situation will be given the most urgent consideration at the highest level in government, including the Departments of Health and Education, so the situation will be fully considered and all actions will be considered, including the possible early closure of the schools in the catchment area, given the significant risk that I and many others feel now exists?
I thank the Deputy. I want to express my support and solidarity for the people in Killorglin and mid-Kerry. I assure Deputy Griffin this will be given the highest priority. We are not particularly concerned about contagion or spread to other primary schools or schools in the area because we are told there is not really much contact or interaction between the different schools. However, it is something we have to bear in mind. Public health guidelines state that when a Covid-19 positive case connected with a school arises, the public health section contacts the school and undertakes a public health risk assessment to identify what action is required. When a risk assessment is undertaken, it takes into account all of the evidence in the particular circumstances, and advice is provided to the school on this basis. Schools are then required to follow public health advice, and where a school is advised by the public health section to close, it must do so. All schools will close for the Christmas holidays on Tuesday, 22 December and will remain closed until 6 January when they will reopen.
I want to raise the issue of funding for Genesis counselling service in Corduff. It serves the entire community of Dublin 15. It is a low-cost service, with a minimum of €15 and a maximum of €35 per counselling session. It also allows for people with payment difficulties to pay what they can afford. It is an incredible service that is struggling with the volume of people coming to it at present. There is a two- to three-month waiting list for adults and a 12- to 16-week waiting list for children. I was privileged to train as a counsellor and psychotherapist in a similar service. Many councillors and psychotherapists offer hours for free to ensure people can access counselling services. Will the Tánaiste raise this with the Minister and ask for exceptional funding for Genesis counselling service to get it over the current crisis and the current numbers attending its services?
I thank the Deputy. I do not have any detail on the matter to hand. Certainly, if the Deputy or the Genesis counselling service wants to contact my office directly, we will see what we can do. It is very much appreciated and understood that there has been a real increase in mental health issues, depression, anxiety and others during the pandemic. A lot of people have really struggled with it. This is why additional funding is provided for mental health services next year. There will be well over €1 billion in funding for mental health next year. If the Deputy would like to get onto my office with the details, or ask the service to contact me directly, we will see what we can do.
In part of the Ceann Comhairle's review of 2020 he told us how bizarre the world was. Bizarre was having the all-Ireland final in December. I congratulate the Limerick team on winning. It gave joy to everybody in Limerick and our diaspora across the world and, because of the amazing team it was, to all hurling fans everywhere.
I want to raise the issue of the Coonagh to Knockalisheen road in Limerick city. Yesterday, among other contributions he made, the Taoiseach stated he is not expected to know about every roundabout or road in the State and that is fair enough. I agree with him. The Coonagh to Knockalisheen road is more than a road. It is a critical piece of infrastructure of the regeneration programme in the city. It is partially built and millions have been poured into it. Recently, I met the principal of the local school in Moyross. I have also met the late parish priest and the residents' association. I have been campaigning on this for a number of years. The road was supposed to be delivered in 2011. It is partially built. A further decision on it is awaited from the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and I ask the Tánaiste to speak to him so he gives the approval for this to go ahead and end what is the biggest cul-de-sac in Ireland, which is the Moyross area. Open up the Moyross area and build the road.
I thank the Deputy. I am familiar with the road because, long ago, when I was Minister with responsibility for transport, I allocated the funding to get it moving, at least in terms of transport and planning. I know there is an active debate at present on this in the area. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, is examining the proposal. He does have some concerns about the prospect that it may result in further road-based development of the city and the city being developed into Clare. I know the people in Moyross in particular feel it will end their cul-de-sac status and would point to the fact it was promised as part of the regeneration. It is a matter with the Minister, Deputy Ryan, at present and it is being discussed.
I want to raise very briefly the national development framework. We have been speaking for months and years about housing. The local authorities must follow this framework. I am also aware Irish Water does not follow the framework and it seems to be hindering a lot of development. Is there any way we can get Irish Water to follow the exact same rules as all local authorities do? It would alleviate a lot of the complications and delays and the denial of building proper infrastructure and servicing sites in order that local authorities can provide local housing.
I thank the Deputy. I will have to come back to him about the framework. I am not familiar with it. I will ask the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien to do so. What I can say is that in 2021 there is a further increase in the budget for Irish Water to invest more in capital infrastructure and water services next year. There is a very long list of work that needs to be done to improve water quality and open up areas for development. It will not get it all done next year by any means but it will have an additional budget to do so, which I hope will make a difference.
When we moved to the level 3 lockdown restrictions, it was great to see all of the swimming pools reopen. The chlorine in the pools makes them relatively safe and it disrupts the transmission of Covid. What has happened now is we have a situation where free swimming is allowable. Children can dive bomb into the swimming pool but there are no structured classes. They are not allowed. There is no control or management of swimming. If classes were allowed, it would provide a much more structured way to enjoy swimming. Swimming groups and swimming classes throughout the country do not really understand the logic in structured and managed classes not being allowed and free swimming being allowed. I ask the Tánaiste to explain it and perhaps consider it.
I thank the Deputy. At present, when it comes to swimming, sports, gymnastics and dance, only individual classes or individual tuition is allowed. This is based on the view from our public health experts that where there are classes, whether a group of six or 12, people will congregate and may interact before and after. They may also be brought there by parents or guardians who may then interact. The whole idea behind the public health restrictions is to reduce the opportunities of people to interact. This is why classes are not allowed at present.
I, too, want to wish everyone a happy Christmas and a safe 2021. This Christmas will be challenging for all of us and while I welcome the lifting of the more stringent restrictions on family visits due to come into effect this week, I ask that we be very careful in our messaging. Now is a good time to encourage the fast-tracking of the Loneliness Taskforce's five principal actions. There is an urgency to see these actions implemented due to Covid-19. Alone reports an increase in the number of callers reporting negative emotions over the past six months, with many people recording feelings of loneliness and social isolation. When we tell people that they must continue to restrict visits and only allow visits from three households, we must be cognisant of those living alone with nobody to restrict from calling. I ask everyone to reach out to our elderly in particular this Christmas, in a very safe manner, and do what we can to help them.
The Deputy is spot on. From Friday, people will be allowed leave their counties, travel across the country and meet up with relatives. We need to bear in mind that it is not the travelling that causes Covid-19 to spread, rather it is the interactions between people. I ask people who are meeting up at the weekend and over the next week or two to stay safe as much as possible. They should make sure that they stay apart, if they can, wear a mask, wash their hands and try not to share utensils, towels and so on. All those things will make a real difference.
With Members' co-operation I am going to get through everybody on the list, even if we go a tiny bit over time. It is Christmas and we are going to get through it. I call Deputy Paul Murphy. I ask for co-operation from all Members.
I want to raise a particular case with the Tánaiste that I raised with the Taoiseach on 23 September. He asked me to send him the details. I did so but I just got an acknowledgement from the Minister for Justice on 25 September and nothing more despite further contact. In simple terms, it is about an Irish citizen who fled here from Iraq after ISIS had taken over Mosul. His father and other close family members were killed. He is currently in Ireland and is now an Irish citizen but his mother is effectively in limbo in Turkey and faces being forced to go back to Iraq where her husband was murdered. They are asking the Government to intervene to allow the family be reunified on a humanitarian basis.
This morning, I was contacted by members of Fingal Communities Against Racism, a group of which I am a member. They advised me that despite the commitment given by the Taoiseach in this House last week that there would be no deportations, a young man was deported from Dublin Airport at 11 o'clock this morning. They stated:
By the time we were informed, within 1 hour of him being lifted to Dublin Airport, he was awaiting deportation on a flight, alone, and only had his mobile phone to communicate with us
By the time we had began to work on raising the issue with the Taoiseach, Ministers, and Lawyers; this man's phone was turned off. He had been deported.
My understanding is that he is on his way to England, that he was moved this morning at 11 o'clock and that from there he will be sent to Sudan. It is cruel to deport people in the middle of a pandemic. The Taoiseach agreed with this last week.
I thank the Deputy. I am not familiar with that particular case so it is impossible for me to comment on it. The commitment that has been given is that there would not be deportations during the pandemic, particularly to zones where there is a high incidence of the virus. However, there was an exception that we said we would make, for example, if it was an issue of national security. I am not saying that this case is an issue of national security. I do not know anything about it but it was not a blanket commitment that there would not be any deportations in any circumstances. There would be circumstances where it would be necessary, especially if it is a matter of national security.
I extend best wishes for Christmas to the Tánaiste, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, all the staff in Leinster House, the Members and their families. This morning we learned that a memorandum was sent to Cabinet on 6 July regarding the appointment of a Supreme Court judge. That is at odds with what the Minister for Justice told us here three weeks ago and it is an issue that needs to be dealt with. What is not at odds is what she told us three weeks ago, namely, that the Tánaiste, interestingly, in a conversation with her had told her that Mr. Justice Woulfe would make an excellent judge. What was the context of that conversation and when did it happen? Was it at a formal meeting between the Tánaiste, as leader of Fine Gael, and the Minister, Deputy McEntee, as a senior Fine Gael Deputy, was it in the context of him as Tánaiste with a senior Minister or, alarmingly, was it a less formal conversation? I want to understand why and how this conversation happened because it is clear to every sensible person in this country that Fine Gael boxed off the job. The Tánaiste instructed his Minister to appoint this man to the Supreme Court and we need to clear up this matter.
All of this was cleared up in the statement by the Minister, Deputy McEntee, some weeks ago in the Dáil. It was an informal contact and there was no instruction. The matter was not taken at Cabinet on 6 July. It was taken some weeks later. During that period the Minister had the opportunity to review all the names put to her and to discuss it with me, the Taoiseach, the leader of the Green Party and the Attorney General. She brought the nomination to Cabinet in the normal way at that point.
I wish the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, the Ceann Comhairle, all the staff, Members and beyond a safe Christmas. I hope I have not been too much of a nuisance during the period but I cannot promise much in terms of the future. I ask the Tánaiste if it is possible to have a review of JobPath, which is an incredibly expensive job activation scheme. Seetec and Turas Nua have been given €240 million in respect of the scheme. We have seen "RTÉ Investigates" uncover correspondence which stated that these two companies are in breach of contract. Obviously, that was correspondence the Department of Social Protection did not want to release. We have had multiple complaints about this not being a fit-for-purpose job activation scheme. It has cost a huge amount of money and now we have these difficulties also.
I thank the Deputy. I believe there was a review. When it comes to JobPath, there is a quarterly report setting out metrics as to how the programme is performing. From my recollection as Minister for Social Protection, although it is a while ago now, the feedback from participants was generally very good. There are always people who will make complaints or who do not like a particular scheme but, in the round, the feedback from participants was very good, and that is what matters most. The outcomes were good also and were comparable to the outcomes we would have with people who use the Intreo or the local employment service.
We have come to the end of a political year, but there are still workers who face the decision taken from the recommendation of Mr. Kevin Foley in respect of former Debenhams workers. They have to make a serious decision, and a ballot will most likely be taken, but those workers were not out on the picket line just to get their negotiated contracts from a company that practically liquidated itself so that it would not have to pay them what they were due. They did it for all the other workers who could face a similar situation in the next year. While the Duffy Cahill report in its entirety will not solve the problem, there are key parts of its recommendations that would play a role in solving the problem for workers into the future. Is the Tánaiste considering setting up a State agency liquidator that would cut across the huge costs private liquidators are causing in situations such as this one and ensure that workers are given preferential credit?
I thank the Deputy. I welcome the acknowledgement that the Duffy Cahill report's implementation would not have solved this problem.
It was suggested early on in this dispute that the Debenhams dispute was analogous to the issue with Clerys. We know that it was not. Clerys had a highly valuable asset in the form of a building. This was a different dispute. The report from the chairman of the Labour Court, Kevin Foley, is instructive for anybody who wants to understand what was or was not true with regard to this dispute. There are not any plans to establish a State agency to handle liquidation, and I would not assume that a State agency would do it any less expensively. It might but I would not make the assumption.
A few minutes ago, the Tánaiste reminded people of the public health advice. It would be a good idea if he included ventilation in that, given that people will be coming together in enclosed circumstances for long periods and ventilation is critical to assist that effort.
On promised legislation, we are all waiting with bated breath to get the detail on the vaccination strategy and there are many unanswered questions. A key question relates to the IT system to underpin the database that will be developed for when people register and when information is gathered about who has had the vaccine and who is due to have the second one. We do not know what data will be collected about people. We do not know what the identifying aspects of that will be but it needs to happen quickly. Can the Tánaiste say whether legislation will be required for the legal basis of that new IT system?
The Deputy is right about ventilation, particularly if people are going to spend a few hours together in the same room.
This is a new vaccine but it is by no means the first vaccine. We anticipate that the data which will be collected on the vaccine and on patients will be much the same as they would be for any other vaccine and that it will be possible to use existing legislation. If legislation is required, we will bring it forward.
The programme for Government commits to legislative changes to the fair deal scheme. The Tánaiste committed to these changes this month. It did not happen. Farmers have been led up the garden path. It was promised two years ago and did not happen then. Has a date now been set for these legislative changes? Farming families that are contacting me are under significant financial strain. We need to be fair and honest with these families. If the Tánaiste commits to legislative changes, it has to be done. It cannot be dragged out any further. It is unfair.
A change to this legislation is long overdue. The fair deal is unfair to farmers and small business people because of the way their assets are calculated. We have been working on this legislation for a long time. I am advised that it will be published in January. I fully accept that the Deputy will not believe that until she sees it, and nor will I, because it has been imminent for a long time. We are committed to getting it done.