Wednesday, 10 February 2021
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has finally lifted his ban, or his delay, on the construction of the Coonagh to Knockalisheen distributor road in Limerick. It will now, I understand, go ahead as planned. Will the Taoiseach confirm that? The Minister's welcome u-turn follows weeks of deep anger and confusion among the local community after he cast doubt on the completion of this essential infrastructure. It is clear to me that the Government would have dumped its promise to the community of Moyross and Limerick if it were not for many people in the Moyross community. I mention especially Tracy McElligott of Moyross Residents Forum, Jason Craig, a family support worker, Adrian Power, a school completion officer, and Tiernan O'Neill, principal of Corpus Christi Primary School, Moyross. Will the Taoiseach also confirm that this will be just one of many steps to assist the community in building housing, jobs and educational opportunities?
I confirm that Deputy Ryan has made that announcement in respect of this road on a significant part of which construction had already commenced, including a bus lane and increased pedestrian measures. I assure the Deputy that, from my perspective, Deputy O'Dea has been a tireless advocate for Moyross and the entire area, as have Deputy Niall Collins and councillors. They engage and have engaged on a consistent basis with the local community.
Jan O'Sullivan as well. We had an interesting presentation by Deputy O'Dea last week and, in his inimitable way, he brought home the importance of getting that project done but also the importance of wider issues of economic development in the Moyross area and greater opportunities which, through the urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, and other initiatives Government will undertake, we will be in a position to provide.
That is good to hear about Moyross.
Our question is on mandatory hotel quarantine. We are expecting legislation next week. Everyone knows here and we are hearing reports about UK emigrants who are hanging out in Ireland for a couple of weeks to get through our lax procedures in order to get a back door into the UK. We have a situation whereby people who are travelling for non-essential reasons, i.e. going on holiday, are being fined €500, handing it over and still being allowed go on their holiday. Why are we so far behind on implementing this? What is the latest status of the fines? Will the level of fine be changed? Will non-essential travellers be fined and sent back to their home?
About 60% of those travelling are returned Irish holidaymakers. There is a sense that €500 is not a sufficient disincentive to travel abroad. That will be increased. The Government is considering increasing that to €2,000 to act as a significant deterrent to people travelling because all non-essential travelling should be avoided. It is the intention to bring forward legislation for approval to Cabinet next Tuesday to deal with mandatory quarantining. If it can be done before that, every effort will be made to that end. There are significant complex legal and personal liberty issues involved that we have to be clear on, including in our own Constitution.
There is increasing opposition to the Government's attempt to rush through the ratification of the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement, CETA, including several local authorities asking for Oireachtas scrutiny this week. One of the main objections is the creation of an investor court system which would allow corporations to sue the Government, bypassing domestic and EU courts.
Big tobacco has used this system in other countries to sue governments. If this investment court system were in place in 2004, big tobacco could have sued to prevent the passing of the smoking ban the Taoiseach brought in, which has helped to save thousands of lives. Why is the Government rushing to ratify CETA when it will threaten progressive legislation such as the smoking ban into the future?
We are not rushing through CETA. It has been in provisional operation for three years, since the Commission signed it, and it has been of considerable benefit to quite a number of Irish companies that export goods and services to Canada, which underpins jobs in Ireland. That dimension of the debate should be articulated a bit more publicly because it is getting no airing. As a country, we are an open indigenous economy that exports most of what we produce in both goods and services.
The investment court issue would not have stopped the smoking ban. It has been categorically established in the European Court of Justice that any public health initiative cannot be thwarted by such mechanisms in CETA. Climate agenda policies or any other public policy measures that a Government may wish to introduce cannot in any way be undermined by the provisions in CETA. That said, I have no issue with all aspects of this issue being aired in the House. I get the sense there is a glaring omission in the public debate around the importance to small and medium sized Irish companies which depend on exports to create jobs and an enterprise economy in this country. The debate on CETA seems very one-sided.
Last night, I received a message from a Cork mother who is fearful that her son is so stressed by the leaving certificate carry-on that he could come to harm. She said it is at the point where she is sitting on his bedroom floor every night while he sleeps, just to keep an eye on him. Meanwhile, the Minister for Education is telling the media she hopes to be able to outline to the Cabinet on Tuesday next an alternative option to the leaving certificate. There will be six more nights of watch and anguish for this mother and six more nights of anguish for 61,000 leaving certificate students, who are sick to the back teeth with the Minister's talk of tomorrow, next week, never today, always mañana.
Students should not be forced to compete against one another for limited college places, least of all in a pandemic year. The Government should invest in third level education, adopt a policy of open access and open a place in third level for every leaving certificate student who wants one. Will the Taoiseach ask the Minister please to get a move on here?
I commend the Minister on her work in developing a leaving certificate for this year. Is it not time that we agreed to accelerate reform in the leaving certificate? It is a tyrannical test that serves only the interest of higher education wanting an easy way of access. It undermines vocational education and is a straitjacket on teachers who want creative learning. It is long past time that we accelerated the reform of this exam, which the OECD stated is too narrow and too rigid and does not match Ireland's needs for the future, or the needs of students sitting the leaving certificate.
This global pandemic has caused enormous stress, anxiety and strain on people generally, and no more so than on younger people in terms of the degree to which their lives have been upended. The routine pattern of life has been completely disrupted. Particularly in the context of this year's leaving certificate, given that the students lost some months last year and have lost some this year, it has been a particularly stressful and an anxious time for them. Last year, we had similar levels of anxiety and stress. It was managed, albeit the traditional leaving certificate did not proceed. There were predicted grades and students came through that and advanced to third level. It was not optimal or ideal but we always have to keep things in perspective. Many of us in this House sat the leaving certificate. We thought it was the toughest exam and the toughest period but years later, one looks back and asks what all the stress and anxiety was about.
The second point-----
The Minister is engaging with all the partners. It is the correct way to do this so that when we make an announcement, it will have been thought through and there will be clarity for the students.
There has been reform of the leaving certificate over time and that should be acknowledged. There will be ongoing reform of the leaving certificate. Its one greatest strength is that it is impartial and it avoids subjectivity.
Seven cent a day is what those working from home in 2020 will receive on average as a tax refund, and that is after submitting a year's worth of invoices for broadband, electricity and heating. That is a princely sum of €26.19 for a year, yet the AA estimates that working from home cost families an additional €210 on heat and electricity alone in 2020. The Government has promised a review of the current tax arrangements for remote workers in its remote working strategy published last month, but just 44 days earlier, the Minister for Finance rejected out of hand the very same proposal in Dáil Éireann.
Is the Government genuine about ensuring that people who are working from home are not left subsidising the Government, which is benefiting from reduced congestion and emissions, as well as some employers?
The Government does not benefit from reduced emissions; society does. We are all the Government, at the end of the day. The State is the taxpayer and represents all citizens. It is part of the social contract that we improve the environment and the climate for all of us, and improve our quality of life. In the context of the remote working strategy, everything will be looked at in the round, that is, pros and cons, benefits and burdens on workers, to see how we can alleviate the burdens and costs.
There are many pluses as well. In my view, reviewing tax arrangements and other issues in the context of the remote working strategy makes sense.
Last June, we debated at length in the House the issue of forestry and tree-felling licences. The situation has got worse. People cannot get forestry licences to sell their trees, whether from private forests or through the national afforestation programme. This has a significant knock-on effect on the building industry, the haulage industry, farm and forestry contractors and people who supply firewood. People cannot get timber for essential construction jobs and it has to be imported.
Will the Taoiseach please ensure there are enough staff in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to deal with the issue? Are serial objectors causing the problem? There is a serious problem. Small businesses are being wiped out, especially in this time of Covid, and jobs are being lost. Above all, people cannot get timber to roof their houses or to carry out other essential works. There is a huge logjam. The forestry Bill we passed last year, which I voted against, is not working. I do not know whether the logjam is due to a lack of staff or of ambition but it needs to be sorted out.
I have to disagree with the Deputy. It is not worse than it was. I do not know how he can say that because I am told the final three months of last year had the highest number of new licences issued of any months in 2020, with almost 900 new licences issued. Licences for a felling volume of some 2 million tonnes were issued in that time, which was 40% of the output for the year. This improvement continued strongly into January, which looks to have been the strongest month for licensing in 18 months. Coillte is the largest supplier of material to Irish sawmills. It has seen its 2021 licensing programme significantly improved and 80% of the programme has been licensed, with the final felling licences for the year to be processed in the coming weeks. It is working with the Department to close out any issues and to ensure availability of supply to market as quickly as possible. Staffing has increased within the Department to deal with all these issues.
I want to raise a matter relating to the destruction of evidence. Page 11 of the report on mother and baby homes records that permission was sought from those who came forward to record their testimony and on the clear understanding it would be destroyed. That is not the clear understanding of those who went forward. I want to pre-empt the Taoiseach responding by telling me that this was an independent investigation. What action is the Government taking in respect of what looks like an action taken by the commission that is outside the terms of the legislation passed in 2004, which prohibits the destruction of information and evidence gathered?
On the information leaflet given to survivors to inform them that their permission was sought to record their testimonies, there was no mention of destruction. What action is the Government taking about that, in view of the fact that the Data Protection Commissioner has raised issues in this regard?
I will discuss this issue with the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, who will engage with the commission.
The commission is independent but, on the other hand, the point in the context of the 2004 legislation, which provides for the preservation of records, is a fair one. That issue needs to be reconciled and sorted.
Late last year, I raised the issue of delays in driving tests in County Kerry, especially in Killarney and Tralee. I thank the Taoiseach for his intervention at that time. Things improved then but they are now worse than ever. Looking forward, it seems we have a six-month waiting time to get a driving test. Essential workers who can provide a letter saying the driving test is for an essential need will be accommodated. The problem, however, is that driver testers are sending people home even when a slot is available, deeming that the need is not essential. We must deal with the word "essential". If testers are able to carry out some tests, they should be doing all of them.
There are massive waiting lists all over the country, especially in County Tipperary, for driving tests and theory tests. Officials in the Department or someone else need to get their finger out. Young people are looking for theory and driving tests to allow them to go to work but the tests are not happening. The Government needs to start making progress on that as quickly as possible.
I emphasise the problem this is causing on the ground. People are suffering distress due to waiting. The chaos that will ensue when things open up will be unbelievable. The Taoiseach must put measures in place now to deal with this problem. It is probably one of the most common issues on which I receive calls every day. I imagine it is the same for an awful lot of Deputies in this House. I ask the Taoiseach and the Department to tackle this issue head-on and try to give people a bit of comfort that they will be called for a test.
On driving tests, the biggest problem is the number of testers being taken on will not be sufficient. It is proposed to take on 140 testers who will do six tests per day. Even if we had a further 40 testers and all testers doing eight tests per day, the extra 180 testers would do 1,400 tests per day and it would still take a year to clear the waiting list of 64,000. More testers are needed. We need a plan of action so that when we come out of level 5, we will have enough testers in place to ensure we can get tests done quickly. Young drivers need to get their driving test, even in terms of insurance costs.
I understand the issue raised by the Deputies but we are in the middle of global pandemic. There is no easy answer to this. Provision was made for people who need tests for essential purposes and those involved in essential services and so forth. Additional staff have been hired. Some 40 temporary driver testers have been hired and 36 who were approved for retention were rehired in 2020. Further recruitment is going on. Waiting times have increased significantly. According to the Department, people applying today now face a potential waiting time of 25 weeks. My sense is that this is a challenging issue and will remain so for some time because of the changing nature of the virus and the arrival of the variant. I have said for a number of weeks that the variant will have an impact on many of areas of life given the higher level of transmission and transmissibility. We must get that into our heads in terms of how we roll out services. It creates the kinds of challenges to which the Deputies have referred. These issues will not be resolved simply.