Wednesday, 24 February 2021
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
Last week I raised with the Taoiseach the urgency of affording priority for vaccination to family carers. He told me that advice and guidance on this had been sought from the National Immunisation Advisory Committee, NIAC, by the Minister for Health. It is very disappointing and concerning that family carers are still left at the back of the queue for vaccination. Why is that the case? I am asking the Taoiseach directly if he will correct the position in this regard. Has the Government received that advice from the NIAC?
What happens to those who are being cared for if family carers fall sick? I reminded the Taoiseach last week that there are some 500,000 family carers and that they save the State €20 billion annually, which is just a financial measure of the care they provide.
No, it is not right to seek political advantage and say one is for every group to go up the list, and so on. I understand the position relating to carers like everyone else in the House. I stated that NIAC advises the Government. We can make inputs and engage in consideration but NIAC advises, that is the point I made last week. The correspondence in question relates to adults with underlying conditions. Deputies raised genuine concerns about conditions such as cystic fibrosis and Parkinson's. People felt that those with certain conditions should be moved up the list because they would be more vulnerable to getting Covid. I refer to those who have had heart or kidney transplants, people on dialysis and so on. The Minister wrote to NIAC to ask it to examine the sequencing relating to the different groups. NIAC has returned with a recommendation on those with underlying conditions-----
Why has the Government dumped Dr. Gabriel Scally from overseeing the implementation of the recommendations of his report on CervicalCheck? I understand the previous Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, confirmed to Dr. Scally that he would continue with his work in this regard even through the pandemic. The CervicalCheck committee has just met. It knew nothing about this. I found this out in the past couple of days. The committee had a meeting in the past few hours - it was not told. The pathways relating cervical screening have been changed. Some members of the committee regard this as a regressive step. Will the Government bring Dr. Scally back? Why was he removed in the first place? Who made that decision? Surely we need to see all the recommendations implemented. A total of 22 remain to be implemented.
The matter has not come before Government in terms of any formal decision to be made. The Government has not dumped anybody. I will check this out and see what the process was or what happened. I will revert to the Deputy.
I had not intended this but I am returning to the matter of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation. Why did the Government allow a motion to be passed earlier in respect of extending the term of the commission if it was not going to act upon it? That is a really cynical exercise in politics. It brings to mind stroke politics. If the Government is not going to act on the motion, why allow it to pass? Why do such a disservice to the House, to the contributions and to the testimonies of survivors who contacted all of us? No one here is claiming moral superiority. I totally reject the Taoiseach's implication earlier that we were claiming such superiority. We have a different view from the Minister. We were proven correct on GDPR, access to archives and the retrieval of testimonies.
Nobody is claiming moral superiority but when that commission dissolves in a few days' time, steps like a judicial review will not be able to take place and that is wrong. If the commission dissolves-----
The motion tabled by the Deputy's party's called for an extension of the commission to review the destruction of the audio tapes and then to allow for the salvaging of remaining testimony. Overnight, the Minister has indicated that he is in a position to salvage the tapes and that back-up tapes have been found. I did not hear his speech earlier but he indicated that to us yesterday and has said that in a statement. That is significant in the context of the motion tabled this morning. It also talked about the archive transferring to the Minister, which we are going to do and of which we are in support. The motion also calls for the carrying out of a full review of the legislation pertaining to commissions of inquiry. We are going to do that and are committed to doing it. In addition, as amended by the Labour Party, the motion also provides for enhanced medical cards to be provided to survivors, which the Government is also committed to doing and wants to do.
Is the Taoiseach aware that the garda who fired the shot that killed George Nkencho has not been suspended from An Garda Síochána pending investigation and, it would seem, has not yet been interviewed by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC?
I do not think that is an appropriate matter to raise in the House. The individual is possibly identifiable and is not here to protect or defend himself. I do not consider that a reasonable-----
In that case I will take a different path with this. Is the Taoiseach aware that correspondence sent by the chairperson of GSOC to the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, dated 22 January refers to the challenge faced by an oversight body with fewer than 40 investigators in dealing with a Garda service of approximately 15,000 members? The under-resourcing of GSOC and the glacial pace of the Nkencho investigation raised the spectre that the murder of a gangland boss might be investigated more quickly now than the killing of a young man by a Garda officer. Does the Taoiseach believe that this is an acceptable state of affairs? Will he agree that an independent public inquiry rather than an under-resourced GSOC investigation is the way to go with this case?
Our deepest sympathies go to all those, particularly the family and relatives of George Nkencho, in terms of what happened in that tragic event in Hartstown. Any fatal shooting of this kind is deeply distressing for all and for the entire community. The local community experienced real trauma as a result of this event. Such incidents, thankfully, are rare in Ireland but this will be fully investigated independently. GSOC has confirmed that it has begun a criminal investigation under section 98 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005. GSOC can make wider systemic recommendations on issues it investigates and it is free to do so in this instance also. It is not appropriate for me to consider any further interventions at this stage.
I raise the issue of the Local Government Fund and how it is distributed to the local authorities. In particular, I raise the issue of Galway County Council, which is so poorly funded it is on life support at present. It is overwhelmed with work and does not have the resources to carry it out. As a result, services will be affected. Geographically, it is the second largest county in Ireland with a diverse range of services from the islands to the Gaeltacht and to the east, in my constituency. There has been talk of the amalgamation of Galway City Council and Galway County Council. The independent committee that was put in place cited two issues that needed to be sorted out, the first of which was the funding of Galway County Council. There is no transparent mechanism within the Department to show the reason the fund is so low for that county. The matrix by which it is done is not transparent. Nobody within the Department can explain it. I ask the Taoiseach to take it on board and to let me know.
I thank the Deputy for raising that issue. His colleagues have raised it a number of times previously. There is an issue to be examined. I will certainly talk to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, about it in terms of the application of the Local Government Fund in respect of Galway city and Galway county.
Community employment, CE, and community involvement schemes are a vital part of our community. The caring sector, Tidy Towns associations, sports clubs, schools and so on are having major difficulty in terms of their sponsors and sub-sponsors due to Covid-19. They cannot fundraise and are ending up with deficits. They have to pay insurance costs, bank charges, IT costs, payroll and all the other charges even though some of them are not currently operational. Will the Taoiseach ask the Minister in charge to give them an increase of at least €6 per week for the materials, even if only for the Covid period, because it is vital that those schemes continue? They are a lifeline for communities in terms of visiting the vulnerable, meals and wheels and everything else. They need political funding at the moment because they cannot fundraise. They always fundraised previously but they cannot in these times. They need to be supported.
We have a major crisis in respect of people over the age of 55 who are on CE schemes. I had a Zoom meeting last Friday with the Skibbereen Education and Environment Project company, which has a number of CE workers, but it looks as if its numbers will be halved. CE workers over the age of 55 and up to the age of 60 are finding it very difficult to get alternative employment. They are now being withdrawn from the CE schemes, which means that community and voluntary organisations mainly will suffer. The Taoiseach will have to intervene with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, on this issue.
As the Taoiseach is aware, the CE schemes do fantastic work in rural communities in particular. I ask for action to be taken in terms of the situation in which they now find themselves, which is at crisis point. Will he increase each scheme by €6 per week to cover their materials?
On the same issue, I want to speak on behalf of the CE schemes and their incredible success, particularly in my constituency of Cork South-West. The Mizen Peninsula, Baltimore, Skibbereen and Clonakilty have had incredibly successful CE schemes that do brilliant work on the ground but they are worried about their future. They are worried about a slashing of participants in the CE schemes. We need someone to look into that and address those issues.
I have been a long-term supporter of CE schemes in whatever position I held, particularly when I was in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. I preserved them and gave additional supports in particular to those over the age of 55. I was the first Minister to bring in the scheme for those over the age of 55 to give longer terms for people on CE schemes. My view is that CE schemes are essential to underpin communities and should not be seen just as a labour market intervention but rather as a community support. I will talk to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, with regard to the points raised by the Deputies. I have seen the work of enterprise schemes and CE schemes across the length and breadth of the country. We will see what we can do. Yesterday, in the Covid plan, we provided for additional funding more generally for communities and for mental health NGOs in respect of giving additional supports but I will talk to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys.
Briefly, in the context of the programme for Government, there are many positive commitments one of which states that inclusion in and access to education is the foundation for a more just and equal society. I have tried everything before standing up here today. I have written to two Ministers, namely, the Ministers for Education and for Transport. I have tabled Dáil questions. It is a very net issue. I acknowledge the funds given during Covid for schools to keep them going and for packages at home. In terms of my specific question, two schools in Galway, but I am sure it applies to other schools, are incurring costs on a weekly basis sending out education packages to those who have no access to computers or to the relevant appliances. It is a very small amount of money in terms of the Department's budget but it will make a huge difference to the two schools in question which are incurring weekly costs sending out essential packages.
I will follow that up with the Minister for Education. I understand the point the Deputy is making. I do not know why they have not responded yet but I will come back to the Deputy on it.