Wednesday, 20 January 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The House has agreed that, for the duration of the Covid-19 emergency only, the rapporteur's report on the Order of Business shall not be read out but shall be taken as read. There are two proposals to put to the House today. Is the proposal for dealing with Wednesday's business agreed to?
I emailed Government and Opposition Whips, the Ceann Comhairle and the officials of the Business Committee earlier today to request that the Minister for Education come before the House tomorrow to make a statement and take questions following the chaos that has emerged with regard to providing school services to children with special educational needs. I understand that can be facilitated tomorrow. Will the Government clarify how this is to be done?
On behalf of the Rural Independent Group, I also support that request. We have to get this sorted. As we know, it is a very sensitive issue. I hope it will be a case of third time lucky. I hope that all of us together can sort out this issue and that this very important cohort of students can be brought back into education with the agreement of all groups. We need some time to debate the matter.
Everybody would welcome the opportunity to have the Minister, Deputy Foley, and, it is to be hoped, the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, in the House tomorrow. The length of time being given to debate on one of the most pressing issues in the country and that being given to debate the vaccine is not sufficient. Some six hours had been dedicated to Brexit this week. I understand that has now been reduced to five. It needs to be reduced further so that we can debate the things that matter most to the people in this country, including educational access for children with special needs. We also need to end the scapegoating of special needs assistants, SNAs, teachers and management and to put clearly on the table what it is the Minister intends to do. We need more time to discuss both this matter and the roll-out of the vaccine programme. We object to the Order of Business.
Indeed it has. The Minister will be in tomorrow. I believe this proposal has been circulated. There is to be a statement by the Minister for Education and questions and answers on the issue of the day regarding special education from 4.24 p.m. to 6.04 p.m. There is also to be a debate of nearly two hours on the vaccine programme comprising a fixed 100-minute debate and a ten-minute wrap-up.
We need more than the 100 minutes or hour that is being given to deal with it. We should spend less time on Brexit and more time on this. It is pressing. Brexit will go on forever but this is absolutely pressing.
We had understood there was broad agreement on the proposal. We are leaving it that. It was a reasonable and generous response. The Minister is quite prepared to come before the House to deal with this.
I point out to the Deputy that Thursday is the day on which the Minister for Education is coming in. We are talking about today's business. Is today's business agreed to? Agreed.
Is the proposal for tomorrow's business when education will be debated agreed to?
As only one teller can be produced by the Níl side, I must, in accordance with Standing Order 82, declare that the motion is carried and Thursday's business is therefore agreed to.
I raise the decision taken by the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, and the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, as party leaders, to award a pay increase of €81,000 to the incoming Secretary General of the Department of Health. How on earth does the Taoiseach regard that as appropriate at a time when so many people's incomes have collapsed, when the Government is taxing pandemic unemployment payments, PUP, and has come up with a proposal for a measly, miserly €100 allowance per student nurses? In that context, how does the Government have no problem splashing the cash for Ministers of State, special advisers and now for senior civil servants when it comes up with nothing but tough luck for all those outside the Government's cosy circle? Can we please have an explanation from the Taoiseach as to why that decision was taken and the rationale for it? Will he confirm that he did sign off on it? Above all else, can he express an understanding that it is necessary to reverse that decision and tell us how we will go about that?
The Government decided on this in respect of the post of Secretary General for the Department of Health given the enormous transformation that is required in our health service over the next number of years. Without doubt, it is the largest spending Department, which has had an extraordinary allocation again this year of an additional €4 billion. If we take one project, such as the National Children's Hospital, which now costs close to €2 billion-----
That predates me, but it speaks to the need to change how the Department of Health is structured and organised. Good reform has been happening within the Health Service Executive. The Department of Health, without question, needs a special focus over the next while to bring through Sláintecare, a universal healthcare system, to get value for money for the extraordinary allocations of funding made by this Government to help in that regard and to deal with all of what that entails.
On that, we are not suggesting that the new Secretary General of the Department of Health should be paid nothing. The Taoiseach, however, does expect student nurses and midwives to be paid nothing.
On the matter of vaccinations, because this is an important issue, the Taoiseach is battling against misinformation, not just from the Internet but from within his own party on certain occasions, regarding the weekday-only roll-out of vaccinations, which is not true. Members of the Opposition have also suggested that our vaccination rate is the lowest in Europe, which is also not true. Unfortunately, however, misinformation is even coming from the HSE. I have received such information regarding a hospital in my constituency. These are understandable mistakes and teething problems, but we feel we need a dedicated Minister of State to be the point person in Government for the vaccination process. There is much goodwill around the country for what the Government is trying to achieve and we in the Labour Party certainly want to play our part. It would be beneficial, however, if we had a dedicated Minister of State in place with full responsibility for the vaccination process as we roll it out and we want the Taoiseach to consider it.
I do not see how that would help at this stage to advance the vaccination programme, given the lines of authority and the statutory framework which governs health. We have appointed a national task force. The national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, advises clinically on the vaccines in respect of safety and efficacy and prioritisation among groups. The HSE is essentially the operational arm of the entire project and it is accountable to the Secretary General of the Department of Health and, ultimately, to the Minister for Health, who is then accountable to the Dáil and the Oireachtas. That chain of accountability is very important regarding the roll-out of the vaccination programme and its administration and operationalisation. Drafting in a Minister of State would not fit into that crucial accountability framework.
I raise the issue of people sleeping rough who are being turned away from emergency shelters. I raised this issue with the Taoiseach before and despite his assurances people continue to be refused access to emergency accommodation even though beds lie empty. The circular issued by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, in December regarding this was weak and ineffective and fell far short of what was needed. In the RTÉ Prime Time Investigates programme on homelessness broadcast on Monday night, we saw the real impact of this cruel and inhumane practice on people sleeping rough. People continue to be refused access to emergency beds since that programme aired. Will the Taoiseach instruct local authorities and the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive, DRHE, to stop this cruel and inhumane practice of turning people sleeping rough away from emergency beds?
In the programme for Government, the word "housing" is mentioned 68 times, "home" 35 times and "homes" 29 times. Two of the five-year housing objectives are to tackle homelessness and to ensure that local authorities are central to delivering on the housing for all mission. The Prime Time Investigates programme on Monday night reported that a 59-year-old homeless Carlowman in Dublin was told he could not access an emergency bed because he was not a local. We heard on that programme the phone call which was made. That man was told that he was registered in Carlow and so he should interact there. As he was in Dublin, he was told in that phone call that there was nothing that could be done for him. The records showed that 75 hostel beds were empty in Dublin that night, yet that man was refused a bed because he was not a local.
I have come across this issue of people not getting beds because they are not locals several times. It is unacceptable. I know the family of the man concerned and they are lovely. This man deserved a bed. It is unfair that he was not allowed a bed that night. This is an issue we need to address. I also came across this issue in respect of a domestic violence case, where a person could not get accommodation and was told because they were from a neighbouring county to go back to their own local authority.
I think the Deputies for raising this very important issue. Directions have issued and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage has been clear that people should not be turned away from emergency accommodation on the grounds of locality or where they are from. I watched that programme. It is difficult enough for people who find themselves homeless where there is capacity and that emergency accommodation should be made available. The Minister has issued a circular, he has been clear in that, and he will continue to instruct and make it clear that people should not be refused accommodation in such circumstances. That is our position.
This lockdown has placed huge pressure and burdens on families. Many parents are unable to work because of childcare responsibilities with schools being closed.
In recognition of the additional burden being placed on parents as a result of the pandemic the German Government has just this month increased working parents' entitlement to paid leave to care for their children on full pay from four weeks per year to eight weeks. I ask the Government and the Taoiseach whether they will commit to introducing a similar right to paid parental leave in this country. We have a situation where many parents have already used all of their annual leave and are now stuck in a desperate situation. We are going to publish the paid childcare leave Bill 2021 next week to provide for leave on full pay for all working parents who are compelled to care at home for children of any age due to Covid-19 measures, such as school or childcare closures, or because their children are sick or injured. I hope the Government will support it and move on with the legislation.
Throughout the pandemic the Government has provided unprecedented and extraordinary supports across the board, both with income supports for those who have lost work and passed measures to provide additional parental leave. There was also support for employers and the jobs they support through the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and a range of other supports. Without question, the level of engagement by Government with different sectors of society has been unprecedented and has been very broadly based. I have not seen the Deputy's proposed legislation but the Government will examine that and will develop a response to it when it sees it.
I wish to raise a very serious concern around the vaccination programme and the fact that only 100 minutes has been set aside this week to debate this very urgent topic. I and many other Members are facing phone calls from our constituents to get answers on the roll out of the vaccine programme. In my Louth constituency there are major concerns about the roll out of the vaccine in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda. Midwives and nurses in the labour ward of the maternity section were promised the vaccination last week. It was postponed and now they are not even being told when they might be vaccinated. It is also being reported that other workers in the hospital who are working in non-Covid sections, including porters and office staff, have received the vaccine. I put it to the Taoiseach that this is wrong and I ask that he please attend to it.
In the first phase of the vaccinations up to 70,000 vaccines were administered to front-line healthcare workers. Some 23,000 were administered to the residents of long-term care facilities. The objective is that by next Sunday all residents and staff in such long-term care facilities would be vaccinated, and a substantial number of front-line healthcare workers. Once the long-term care facilities are done the intention is to continue with front-line healthcare workers until the full 150,000 of those in hospitals and in the community are vaccinated. The situation so far is dependent on the supply of the vaccine. As we get the vaccine in from Pfizer-BioNTech, we are administering it. That is the only limitation on the roll out of the vaccine. Ireland is one of the better performers across Europe right now, but the level we are at now is nowhere near the level we need to be once more vaccines come on stream. That is the point. This will not happen until we have authorisation of the third vaccine, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, by the end of this month.
I want to raise again the unbelievable closure of St. Brigid's District Hospital in Carrick-on-Suir by the Taoiseach, his Minister, and the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, and to raise the refusal by the Taoiseach's and his Ministers to meet with Councillor Kieran Bourke, with the activist groups and with nurses and nursing staff there to explain why this was done in the middle of a pandemic. St. Brigid's is a wonderful institution that clearly was good for step-down beds during Covid, the use of which the Government took over in March, and for cancer care and palliative care. The Taoiseach will not even meet with the people or the representatives, and then he gives Mr. Watt and increase of €81,000. It is shocking what goes on in the HSE with procurement and yet the Taoiseach does not have the manners or respect to meet with Councillor Bourke or his colleagues in Tipperary County Council, with the action group, or with the doctors and nurses involved in the hospital. They will not accept this and it is not going to go away. I want to know when the Taoiseach will meet them.
On the same issue, will the Taoiseach ask the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Butler, if she will meet the representatives of the people of Carrick-on-Suir to discuss the closure of St. Brigid's? In a recent letter the Minister refused to meet with them and, effectively, dismissed their concerns. This is at the same time locals are seeing the facility being asset stripped and everything being moved out. They are angry and feel disrespected. Will the Taoiseach or the Minister confirm if an analysis was done of how much it would cost to bring the facility to the standard the HSE claims it does not meet? Was this done before the decision was made? If so, will the Taoiseach provide that analysis to us? If it was not done, then the people of Carrick-on-Suir and the surrounding areas deserve an explanation as to why it was decided to close the facility rather than attempting to keep it open. Other Deputies from Tipperary and I were told last summer that it was going to reopen as it was. Will the Taoiseach ask the Minister to meet with the people of Carrick-on-Suir urgently?
I do not know whether the Deputies have talked to the HSE locally. I suspect that the Deputies are aware of why the HSE took the action it has taken. That said, it is my understanding that the HSE wanted to invest in the centre with different purposes in mind. The facility needs a lot of investment and its current structures are not in a very good state, and I believe the Deputies would agree with that.
Last week I asked the Taoiseach about the refusal by the commission on mother and baby homes of subject access requests. The Taoiseach responded by stating: “The Minister's bona fides were absolutely correct on that occasion ... I will ask the Minister to come back to the Deputy on the specific point he raised”. The first part of the answer was fallacious, and the latter part has not occurred.
I want ask the Taoiseach about the major landslide of unstable peat caused by wind farm construction at Meenbog in Donegal. I know the Taoiseach is more than aware of this incident. It is just another example in a litany of poor planning decisions that have impacted Donegal over the years. This has eroded people’s faith in the planning system in the county. With this in mind there are two simple actions over which the Government has control. One is the finalisation of the wind energy guidelines review that has been ongoing since 2013. The other is the publication of the Mulcahy report into certain planning matters in Donegal that has been ongoing since 2015. During his term as Taoiseach will the Government commit to the finalisation and implementation of the wind energy guidelines review and the publication of the Mulcahy report into certain planning matters in Donegal? The Taoiseach's two predecessors and eight Ministers have failed to do so.
I will talk to the Minister on the wind energy guidelines and the publication of the Mulcahy report. I will follow those up for the Deputy. The wind energy guidelines have been considered by the Department for a long time now so I will talk with the Minister about those.
I want to add my voice to the call for more vaccinations. We all appreciate that home helps and people on the front line have to be vaccinated first but I want people to be aware of the number of businesses whose doors are closed in County Kerry and in the town of Killarney, which has not a light in it. The Taoiseach is at the wheel. He is the Taoiseach of the country and is the Head of the Government. I ask that he rescues and salvages the tourism industry for the people in Kerry and all around the Ring of Kerry and to think of all the coach operators whose buses are parked in their yards. The Taoiseach must be aware of this and pull out all the stops to ensure vaccination. At 100,000 vaccines per month, it would take eight years to vaccinate all the people in the country. The Taoiseach must wake up and take serious action to ramp up the vaccinations because that is what is needed at this time and no more lockdowns.
We are in the middle of a global pandemic and the virus is wreaking devastation on many industries, on many sectors and on society at large. That is the reality. The vaccination programme offers light at the end of the tunnel. We are part of a European pre-purchase agreement process with a number of companies for the delivery of the vaccine.
The first such company was Pfizer-BioNTech and it is delivering its vaccine to Ireland. Moderna has followed with low levels of vaccine. As soon as we get vaccines in, we will administer them, and that is what we have been doing. As I have said already in the House today, when the AstraZeneca vaccine is authorised, it will give us higher volumes. We will get higher volumes from Pfizer-BioNTech when it has reconfigured its manufacturing capacity, and that will also happen for the additional amounts we have purchased in March. I anticipate that by April, May or June, the issue will not be vaccine supply. Rather it will be a national effort with a very strong and expansive workforce to get the vaccine administered.
On Friday, the Minister for Health confirmed to me that SouthDoc clinic in Blackpool was to reopen on Monday. At short notice over the weekend, SouthDoc reversed that decision and the Blackpool clinic did not open. SouthDoc has received €7.3 million to provide out-of-hours GP services for the Cork and Kerry region. It has misled the HSE, the Minister, and more importantly, the people of Cork North-Central. I have been raising this issue for months. Will the Taoiseach personally intervene in this matter, contact SouthDoc and instruct it to open its Blackpool clinic as soon as possible? At the end of the day, private operators should not be allowed treat citizens like second-class citizens. Everyone is entitled to the same healthcare.
I was involved in the establishment of SouthDoc in my time as Minister for Health and Children. It has provided a range of services across the Cork-Kerry region, including out-of-hours, 24-7 services, GP services and primary care services. The understanding was that the clinic would be opening and SouthDoc has taken that decision. I do not operate SouthDoc but nonetheless I will seek an explanation for the failure to open the Blackpool clinic and the reasons for it and I will revert back to the Deputy.
I congratulate Joe Biden on being inaugurated today as the 46th President of the United States. As somebody who availed of a Morrison visa, I raise the issue of the thousands of undocumented Irish people in the United States. We have never had a better chance of getting these people some help, now that there is a Democratic House of Representatives, a Democratic Senate and a Democratic President. The visas we availed of over the years I spent in America were Donnelly, Walsh and Morrison visas, all of which came from Democrats. I ask the Taoiseach to use as much political influence as he can with everybody possible to legalise the Irish in America. Some of those people have not been home for 25 years. Mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters belonging to them have died and they have not been able to come home because of the fear of not getting back. These people have caused no crime. They have only helped the economy in the United States and I ask the Taoiseach to do all in his power to legalise them.
I thank the Deputy for his comments and I concur with them. As I said earlier, we wish President-elect Biden the very best and I agree with him when he describes the Irish poets as the best in the world. We look forward to welcoming him to Ireland during his presidency and we look forward to a very fruitful partnership with the United States on a range of multilateral issues, from climate change to public health issues as regards the status and position of the World Health Organization. Progress has been made on the undocumented Irish in recent times. It has been very difficult to get agreement across the aisle, or total and unanimous agreement on the E-3 visa situation. We are continuing to work on that and we now have an opportunity with the new President-elect to do so.
The programme for Government states, "We will continue to invest in new roads infrastructure to ensure that all parts of Ireland are connected to each other." I do not expect the Taoiseach to know about every single road across the State, but in my constituency of Limerick there is a road of which he should be aware of, namely, the Coonagh to Knockalisheen road. I ask the Taoiseach to intervene personally in this matter. The road is partially built and we have spent €17 million on it already. It was supposed to recommence building in September 2020. This issue is on the desk of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan. The community are angry and fed up. It is a key part of the regeneration programme for the north side of Limerick and it will open up Ireland's biggest cul-de-sac, Moyross. One can drive into Moyross one way only. This will open up the top of it and has the potential to make the area socially and economically viable. I ask the Taoiseach to speak to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and ask him to intervene. I understand the communities are meeting the Minister tomorrow but they are beyond frustration at this point.
I welcome the fact that that meeting is happening tomorrow. Deputies O'Dea and Quinlivan and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, have been consistently raising this issue with me and there has been significant advancement on the first phase of the project. I will engage again with the Minister, Deputy Ryan, on it.
I raise the issue of our quarantine and self-isolation regime as it applies to international travellers. This issue has come up time and again. We heard further reports at the weekend about the lack of follow-up on passenger locator forms, the information given when people were followed up on and the quality of the information coming back. It strikes me as a huge loophole and a gap in our ability to be confident that defences against Covid-19 are in place. Are there plans on behalf of the Government to address this issue? Do those plans include a mandatory regime and putting such a regime on a statutory footing? Is the Government actively considering the possibility of quarantine hotels?
The recent decision of the Government on the obligation and requirement for a negative PCR test before one comes into the country has been strongly adhered to. There are very high levels of adherence to that measure. Further measures around quarantine are constantly being examined and there are significant implementation issues around them. To be frank, we have an issue in people accessing the Republic through flights into Northern Ireland, and that remains a concern.
On a point of order, because of the present arrangements it is not always possible for Deputies to attend on consecutive days. In making arrangements for when Questions on Promised Legislation can be raised by Deputies, the Ceann Comhairle's office could perhaps recognise people who have been on a list but may not be able to attend the following day.
That is a very fair point. In fact, the Committee on Standing Orders and Dáil Reform is looking at this matter of how Questions on Promised Legislation are handled, which are very often not questions on promised legislation at all. We are looking at that this week in an effort to come up with a more effective way of dealing with the issue. I thank the Deputy for that suggestion.