Thursday, 4 February 2021
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
I return to an issue I raised 11 months ago. In May, four small pubs launched a High Court action against one of the biggest players in the insurance industry, FBD Insurance. The judgment is to be handed down tomorrow. The case was taken over FBD's refusal to pay out on business interruption as a result of Covid-19 and thousands of businesses hold similar policies with FBD and, indeed, other insurers. Last month the Financial Conduct Authority, FCA, in Britain won a similar case in the Supreme Court taken on behalf of policy holders. Our Central Bank took no such action. Whatever tomorrow's ruling may be, and that will be independent of everything else, we risk seeing a tidal wave of litigation which would be costly and slow for thousands of businesses. There is an alternative. Will the Tánaiste support me in calling for the Central Bank to put in place an examination similar to the tracker mortgage examination where there is an audit of policies, clear expectations set for insurers and intrusive supervision by the Central Bank with strict enforcement and heavy sanctions for insurers that fail to live up to these expectations? It is time for the Central Bank to defend the interests of these businesses.
I will certainly give it consideration, If the Deputy wishes to write to me or to the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, on the details, we will give it some thought. As the Deputy said, the pubs versus FBD Insurance decision is expected tomorrow. These are significant test cases. It will be interesting to see what decision the courts make. It will have a significant impact potentially on lots of other businesses which had interruption insurance. The question arises whether or not pandemics are covered. I look forward to reading the judgment, reflecting on it and seeing what are its implications.
Prior to the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, the media was briefed by the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, that 875,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine would be approved for use and purchase by the Cabinet. Did that happen? We all know now there will be issues in the roll-out of the vaccine for those over 70 years. I am decoding what the Tánaiste said earlier but essentially we will not have the same amount of vaccine, given yesterday's decision on AstraZenica. Was the decision made and can the Tánaiste tell the House the date for when all front line Covid-facing healthcare workers will be fully vaccinated?
I am dealing with a situation in my home hospital of Nenagh where many of the staff have not been vaccinated. There has been a Covid outbreak there.
They are so scared because of the scale of Covid-19 in the hospital. When will all of our doctors, nurses and other Covid facing front-line workers be vaccinated? Surely the Tánaiste has a date.
I thank Deputy Kelly. That decision was not made at Cabinet. It is still pending and still under negotiation. With regard to front-line healthcare workers, it is expected that all will have received both doses of a vaccine by the end of March. Some have already received both doses. Others are still waiting for their first dose.
Yes, those healthcare workers who deal with patients. It is expected that all public facing, front-line facing healthcare workers will have both doses by the end of March. Some do already. Some have not had the first dose yet. Obviously, the AstraZeneca vaccine can now be prioritised for those healthcare workers.
To clarify, the number of doses we will receive has not gone down. It is still 1.2 million between the start of the year and the end of March. We will still be able to start vaccinating the over 85s from the middle of February.
Five hundred and fifty survivors gave their testimony as part of the mother and baby homes commission investigation. Those recordings were never fully transcribed and they have since been destroyed. That is despite assurances from the Minister in October that survivors would be able to access their own stories and also a clause in the 2004 Commissions of Investigation Act that the commission is required to retain all evidence it receives. It has been reported that the Data Protection Commissioner, DPC, has contacted the commission regarding the destruction of these files. However, the commission is due to be dissolved on 28 February, which is only a few weeks away. It is very important that we do not fail these survivors again. Will the Government immediately extend the term of the commission to enable a full investigation of the destruction of these files and the recovery of any information possible?
I thank the Deputy. I only heard about that the other day and was quite surprised to hear it, quite frankly. It is something I know the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth is now aware of and it will be a decision for him as to whether it makes sense to further extend the term of the commission. It is important to say once again that the mother and baby homes commission is independent of Government. It was established by the Oireachtas. It is not controlled by the Government or a creature of Government. Commissions, by their very nature, just like tribunals, are independent bodies. Perhaps one of the flaws in the process is an independent body like a commission can spend five years hearing evidence, examining evidence and making its report but then is not there to explain it. One is then left, as a Government Minister, trying to explain a report that one had no role in actually drawing up. I do not blame the members of the commission for that in any way but if we are going to do another inquiry on a similar issue, we need to look at a better way to do it.
I raise with the Tánaiste the future of the Dean Maxwell nursing home in Roscrea. I do so in the context of the current review of the national development plan. Community groups in Roscrea have combined to make an application for funding to build a new Dean Maxwell care home and community hub. This is an essential infrastructural development, which would deliver a comprehensive range of services for those in need of elderly care in Roscrea and district.
For more than 50 years, north Tipperary had three centres of elderly care - Thurles, Nenagh and Roscrea. When the last health plan was formulated the HSE, with political encouragement, downgraded Roscrea. I raised this matter with the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health a few months ago. The Minister for Health, at my request, organised a meeting with senior executives in the HSE. At this meeting, the HSE outlined its true intentions. It is the policy and intention of the HSE to move long-stay beds out of the Dean Maxwell unit to Nenagh. The Dean Maxwell unit would then become a short-stay unit with no meaningful future. Through this policy the Dean Maxwell unit is effectively consigned to closure by stealth. This would have disastrous consequences in terms of the delivery of elderly care for the citizens in Roscrea. We cannot allow the services in Roscrea be sacrificed. This unforgivable injustice must be addressed. I ask the Tánaiste for the timescale involved in the process for appraisal, evaluation and assessment of applications under the plan.
I thank Deputy Lowry for raising this important issue. Senator Ahearn and Deputy Cahill have been in touch with my office about it also. The Dean Maxwell Community Nursing Unit needs to be upgraded and modernised to meet Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, standards. I have been informed that it has been asked to make a submission to the review of the national development plan and that it has done exactly that. That review is under way. I do not have an exact timeline but we would expect to have the review completed within a couple of months. I want to acknowledge the importance of having such a unit in Roscrea. I will certainly make the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, aware that it was raised by the Deputy again today.
We all expected teething problems on 1 January with regard to Brexit. Irish Road Haulage Association hauliers and many private haulage companies and car importers have been on to me and many other politicians about this issue. There are anomalies in the 300 page document and nobody in Revenue, who are doing their best, can give people an answer as to why they must pay the import duty at the point of entry. When they bring in cars they pay the VRT when they sell them and register them. That should be done now with this also.
Drivers of trucks are being held up, sometimes for 24 and 48 hours. That is totally unfair to them. They are innocent here. If there are cars for four or five garages on the one load one driver might not have money in the account to pay whatever is the sum. They will have to pay it later on because it is registered and documented. We need to have this document simplified. We need to have the Minister for Finance, the head of Revenue and the Secretary General of the Department of Finance deal with this to give clarity and stop the chaos at the ports.
I thank the Deputy. I will certainly check that out. Every day there is a new problem when it comes to Brexit. There are many teething problems, as the Deputy says, but it is important to admit that they are not all teething problems. Britain has left the Single Market and the customs union. Frictionless trade with Britain is over. Checks, charges, controls and paperwork are now the new reality when it comes to trade with Britain. That was their decision. We regret it but we have to deal with it. While we will try to minimise disruption for business it will not be possible to eliminate it entirely.
Wilker Auto Conversions, in Offaly, has announced that staff will be laid off there for about three weeks in respect of supply issues as a result of Brexit. Enterprise Ireland and my Department are reaching out to the company today to see if we can help out in any way but I understand that a three-week temporary lay-off is the worst case scenario and the employees will be re-hired after three weeks.
At the moment, it is not possible for somebody to do a driver theory test. A mass of people are looking to get their licences. One cannot get a Safe Pass. Is there any way of trying to allow them do something online? I was talking to a guy yesterday who has been driving a car for 25 years. He has to have the trailer licence for which one has to do a theory test. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, might be fond of bikes but cars, lorries, tractors and so on are needed in this country. Could some commonsense measure not be brought in by the Department of Transport, and I understand we are in a pandemic, to allow people make applications online straightaway? Three or four months is too long to wait and too many people who have the prospect of work cannot go to work because of the situation in which they are caught.
I thank the Deputy. Again, I will check that out with the Road Safety Authority, RSA. I do not see why it could not be done online but I can see an obvious difficulty. How would one know that the person who is doing the test online in their own home is actually the person who is supposed to be doing the test? There would be a difficulty with that. I will definitely make contact with the RSA and see if we can do something because I appreciate the problem is a real one.
The programme for Government commits to a technological university for the south east. I am sure the Tánaiste will agree with me that this is a hugely important project for everybody in the south east. Two issues have arisen over the past number of weeks which need clarification. The first is that there is a lack of certainty in respect of where the headquarters of that new university will be located. There is a lot of speculation, which I do not believe is helpful. We need clarity.
There is a lack of clarity in the process in terms of the criteria that will determine where the headquarters will be. It should be where the critical mass of students is. That makes perfect sense. There are also issues with the required capital funding to increase the footprint of both campuses in Waterford and Carlow. I know Waterford Institute of Technology has made an application to the national development plan for a revised application of €200 million.
Will the Tánaiste confirm that this will be accepted? What is the level of capital funding that will be delivered? How will a decision be made on the headquarters?
I am a really strong supporter of a technological university for the south east. We were not able to make it happen in the previous Government but I am determined it will happen in the early part of this Government, if not in the next couple of months. It is a very important project for the south east, both in terms of enabling students to stay in or come to the region and, from an IDA Ireland perspective, getting more investment in the south east, which is required. It is also helpful for spin-off companies and can help drive the creation of jobs, and higher quality jobs in particular, in the south east, which is essential.
I understand the decision on where a headquarters would be located is for the technological university board, and I assume it will make that decision. As a Government, we are very strongly supportive of expanding the footprint of the technological university in Waterford city and are examining the old Waterford Crystal site in particular as a potential site that could be purchased and used to expand the technological university once established.
The Government and its Minister with responsibility for housing in particular have indicated they want to end the housing crisis but there are vacant houses lying idle right across the State. A solution I have suggested for years, and which I put to the Minister last year, concerns these vacant properties. Currently, the Government puts out two calls per year for local authorities to refurbish vacant properties. There is a cap on the process and it is hampered by red tape and bureaucracy.
I call for a straightforward fast-track approach that would give local authorities the ability to get these vacant houses returned to the housing stock. They are a magnet for antisocial behaviour and dumping, destroying the communities they are in. Will the Tánaiste ask the Minister and his departmental officials whey they are stopping local authorities getting vacant properties back to the housing stock? It is breaking the hearts of people on housing waiting lists to look at this.
As the Deputy knows, there are different types of vacant housing. There are the types in the ownership of local authorities, and those that are not and are privately owned. Funding is available to local authorities to restore and renovate voids in their ownership in order to make them available for people on the housing list. That process has sped up a lot in the past couple of years and the councils have done a good job on that. With privately owned vacant houses, local authorities have compulsory purchase order powers. Some local authorities, including the Louth council, have done a really good job with those powers but others could do much better.
I thank the national immunisation advisory committee for its really important advice on vaccinations. Data from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, last week demonstrate that successfully reaching people aged over 65 would stop 93% of deaths that have occurred from Covid-19, whereas reaching those with underlying conditions would stop 87% of people having to enter intensive care units.
Successful vaccination is really important but we cannot count any chickens before they hatch. Could we devote the sort of attention that is being devoted to reopening education safely to reopening some of the other areas that are affected by level 5 and level 4 restrictions? I am thinking about mental health services, childcare, safe pods for isolated people, worship and outdoor activity. With warmer weather, could we find ways to improve ventilation and use antigen testing to make such venues or activities safer? There is potential that could be explored.
Under level 5 restrictions, we are allowed to reopen educational facilities. That will happen on a phased basis, starting with special schools quite soon, along with childcare and construction. Much work is being done to enable the safe reopening of those sectors. We are loath to speak too much about opening other sectors because we do not want to give rise to anticipatory behaviour. We know when people anticipate the easing of restrictions, they tend to drop their guard, and we do not want that to happen on this occasion. There is no guarantee we will be able to ease restrictions on 5 March but we hope to do so.
We are expecting updated guidance on ventilation, which is really important, and it is increasingly acknowledged that good ventilation is one of the tools we can use to prevent the spread of this virus. That is being done.
Antigen testing is more complicated and the view from the Chief Medical Officer and the National Public Health Emergency Team is that antigen testing, including mass antigen testing, misses too many positive cases. In one test, it missed five from six positive cases. They have indicated it is only particularly useful in symptomatic cases and outbreaks but not as a mass screening tool for travel, schools, events or anything like that.
This Government made commitments to survivors of the mother and baby homes but the audio testimonies they gave have suddenly been deleted. I can tell the Tánaiste how this has affected one of the survivors; it is only one story and every Member in the House would have heard similar stories from other survivors. When the lady in question read her so-called testimony in the written report, she realised that apart from the first two lines, the words on the paper were not those that came from her mouth. She was so appalled she cannot bring herself to read the rest of the report. She has said this has set her back - the opposite of what this process was supposed to do - but she was thankful the interview was recorded. At the weekend she was stunned to learn the recordings had been deleted. She is adamant she was never informed that this would happen.
The Tánaiste cannot blame people for questioning motives in this case. This lady is demanding to know why, when survivors have pointed out irregularities in the transcripts, the only real proof of the misrepresentation was suddenly deleted. Who approved the deletion of the tapes? This lady and all the survivors deserve answers.
I thank the Deputy. As he is aware, the mother and baby home commission is independent from the Government. It was established by the Oireachtas but is not an agency of the Government, so I cannot answer questions on its behalf. I will see if the Minister with responsibility for these matters can find the answers to those questions.
The commission of investigation did the job it was asked to in terms of gathering evidence and making findings. One element very much missing from that process was the opportunity for survivors to tell their story in a public forum. Many survivors would like to have had the opportunity to engage in some form of truth telling process where they could have their stories heard. I hope it will still be possible to do something like that in future.
In 2018, a young child presented to the Galway sexual assault unit for examination. Documents I have seen suggest that gardaí reported on this the day before the examination took place. The child was also the subject of a specialist Garda interview that does not appear to have been referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions. The programme for Government outlines supports and therapeutic services for vulnerable children but today this child has no services or support. Tusla has closed the case, despite numerous referrals from various agencies, including Barnardo's. I have highlighted this case to the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth so will the Government work with him to examine the systematic failures that took place and also to find other children who may not have been best served by similar failures?
That is very concerning. As the Deputy appreciates, I cannot comment on individual cases and I do not have information on any individual cases for reasons of privacy and data protection. I will certainly let the Minister know the Deputy expressed these concerns today.
The roll-out of the vaccine is a great concern for so many working on the front line. Carers and older people must be offered the vaccine and foremost in the process should be our GPs, nurses and home help personnel. I have spoken to GPs and nurses in west Cork in the past couple of days who have not yet been offered the vaccine, despite us being told it has been offered throughout the country.
It is right that medical professionals like doctors and nurses in Dublin were the first to be vaccinated but their counterparts in west Cork have been left behind. I have asked the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, this question over the past few weeks and failed to get an answer. When will our GPs, nurses and home help staff be offered the vaccine in west Cork?
I will be brief but this is the same matter of the vaccine roll-out. I was contacted by the concerned parent of a vulnerable adult with cystic fibrosis who was almost hospitalised last week with a seizure.
This parent is most concerned that vulnerable adults, and particularly those with underlying conditions such as cystic fibrosis, receive the vaccine as soon as possible. What is the plan for those adults who need the vaccine?
I thank the Deputies for raising this important matter. Many GPs and nurses have already received the vaccine. Some have already received two doses, and all will by the end of March 2021. We will now be able to prioritise the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine for healthcare workers such as GPs and nurses. I think home helps are in a different category. They may well be in category 6, but I will have to double check. I did hear that Bantry Hospital had very successfully provided the vaccine to its staff. It is not all bad in west Cork. I am glad to see that Bantry Hospital was able to vaccinate its staff in the last few weeks.
The issue of cystic fibrosis has been raised on a number of occasions. We will take it up with the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC. The decision by which people are prioritised into 15 different groups is made based on medical and scientific advice. We have raised with NIAC the issue of whether people who are aged under 70 or 65 and have chronic conditions such as cystic fibrosis, or are transplant patients, for example, should be prioritised and put into a different group. We await further advice on that.
Over 5,000 children are on a waiting list for assessment of need appointments. It is totally detrimental to the development of children. What can this Government do to reduce these waiting lists and support these children and their families?
On the same issue, the Disability Act 2005 states that an assessment of need for a child should be completed within six months. There have been 115 applications by parents to the Circuit Court seeking the enforcement of assessments of need. The State agency has reported to me and the HSE that it has received 30 claims in respect of assessments of need. To date, no payments have been made to any parents. Whilst no payments have been made to any families, children or parents, the State has paid €700,000 in defence costs. It is defending the indefensible. That €700,000 could be spent on providing needs assessments of need.
As the Tánaiste is well aware, there are growing mental health issues among our young people right now. Not being able to see their best friends, remote learning and uncertainty around exams are all causing heightened anxiety. Some 20 children have been put on the mental health waiting list in the south of Wexford over the last eight months. Another 49 children are waiting on support from child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, in the north of the county. A senior psychologist post in the south service has remained vacant for well over a year, and shamefully, there is no children's dietician in the county at all. I implore the Tánaiste to see to it that these essential posts are filled without any further delay.
The budget for the HSE this year provides for it to take on an extra 16,000 staff. Never, in any one year before, has the HSE had the authority or budget to recruit so many additional staff. I hope that includes the hiring of some of the staff in Wexford mentioned by the Deputy. I will ensure that the HSE is aware that he raised the issue today.
On the issue of assessments of need, the Government acknowledges that these assessments are happening far too slowly. There is provision for additional staffing. There will have to be better organisation procedures as well. We know from bitter experience that additional staff and resources does not always mean shorter waiting lists and better outcomes. I know that the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is working very hard on that particular issue. I absolutely agree that the money would be much better spent providing services than on legal fees. However, that is the difficulty once things go legal.
Traditionally, Ireland has rejected racism in all shapes and forms, and rightly so. However, in recent times there appears to have been a sneaking back into the system and a tacit acceptance of racism. I ask the Tánaiste whether it might be expedient now to introduce legislation to address this issue.
The Government is open to proposals for new legislation in this area. We are already in the process of updating the legislation on incitement to hatred. Potentially, the updating of that legislation by the Minister for Justice may provide the vehicle for new and stronger laws in this area.
The parents of children at the Drogheda Educate Together Secondary School on Mill Road in east Meath have recently been informed that the school is to move to a site at St. Oliver's Community College on the far side of Drogheda. There was no consultation whatsoever with the teachers, board of management or the parents. Parents are rightly asking how the Department can say that a temporary school can be built on the St. Oliver's site by this coming September, yet the additional seven classrooms needed on the current site cannot be provided. They are rightly asking why the school should have to move. The site was specifically identified to cater for the increase in population in the east Meath and south Louth area. It is a totally illogical decision. It is the equivalent of moving a secondary school from north County Dublin to south County Dublin. That is how impractical it is. Will the Tánaiste investigate the Department's reasons for the decision and the illogical nature of it and when this decision will be reversed?
I am afraid that I am not familiar with the particular school mentioned by the Deputy. However, I absolutely agree that there should be proper consultation with the parents, the student body and the board of management. I will let the Minister of Education know that the Deputy has raised the issue in the Chamber and I will ask her to respond to the Deputy directly.
Stepping Stones School is a special school for children with autism and complex needs in Kilcloon, County Meath. Its five classrooms are less than half the size of standard primary school classrooms and are housed in dilapidated, pre-fabricated buildings. Walls are paper-thin, to the extent that they cannot support wall-mounted hand sanitiser. The floors have rotted, been replaced and are rotting again. Technical assessments on the need for a new school building were eventually conducted by the Department, but nothing more. I ask the Tánaiste to contact his Government colleagues, the Minister for Education and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and to ask them to engage directly with the staff and parents at Stepping Stones on this issue as a matter of urgency.
I will certainly do that. I will inform the Minister and the Minister of State that the Deputy has raised the issue of the school in Kilcloon in the Chamber today. I will ask them to engage directly with the school.