Thursday, 25 February 2021
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
I have 34 names and I do not think we will get through them all. Rather than have me interrupting Deputies all the time, I ask Members for their co-operation in refraining from making statements and simply putting their question.
The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is hell-bent on introducing a shared equity scheme that will only push up house prices. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, knows, as we all do, that a whole generation is locked out of home ownership because of the prices that are being charged for houses. It is not just Sinn Féin that is saying the scheme will push up house prices. The most senior official in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is saying the property industry is lobbying for this because it will push up house prices and line the pockets of developers. It is the developers who lobbied for this scheme. The reason we know that is that they lobbied Sinn Féin as well. We told them to sling their hook because we knew it would lock in high prices. However, they went over to Government Buildings and got a friendly ear in the form of the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. It is not just Sinn Féin and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, but the Central Bank and the ESRI are all singing the same tune, that this policy is reckless and will push up house prices and it should not happen.
The Minister, Deputy Ryan, as leader of the Green Party, was very clear. He committed to pushing back on inflationary demand-side interventions in the home purchase market. The Green Party states in its policy document that these are essentially social transfers from taxpayers to developers and builders which are paid through increased house prices. How can the Minister reconcile that the Green Party is rolling over and allowing this Minister to introduce a policy that everybody knows is going to increase house prices?
Deputy Doherty is right. We have to make sure this does not push up prices. That is why the ESRI rightly stated at the Oireachtas joint committee that the targeting of any market intervention is critical and that we must make sure we get this right. The key to getting it right is also what this Government is delivering after a lot of talk and promises over the years when nothing was ever delivered. It is the development of cost-rental solutions, which I believe should be central to addressing the housing crisis. The key benefit of these solutions as an intervention is that they intervene in the market to bring prices down. This approach is not developer-led; the housing is still retained in public ownership and it is social housing done in a new way. It is open to everyone. The shared equity scheme is being discussed and advanced with care to make sure it does not create further market pressures and price rises.
I will ask the Minister about the revised reprioritisation of the vaccine roll-out through the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC. Broadly speaking, I welcome the decision, but issues arise and I want to flag them so they are nipped in the bud. In response, I want the Minister to guarantee that this will happen.
Dr. Keith Swanick in Mayo has outlined how he and a neighbouring GP received no vaccines but another neighbouring GP received 420 vaccines, despite having only 45 to 50 patients aged over 85. That cannot work out. More alarmingly, my colleague, Deputy Howlin, informed me this morning that in Wexford a childcare provider, who possibly put some pressure on the HSE, got all her staff vaccinated. These are young people in their 20s, 30s and possibly 40s. If what I have outlined in those two examples is going to continue, the public will have serious issues.
I will commit to that. We listened to what Dr. Swanick said with real care because he was in the centre of a flare-up of cases in Belmullet, so I can well understand his frustration. I spoke earlier to Deputy Catherine Murphy about the changes to the vaccine roll-out process. This week, there was a further iteration or variation when it was decided that those people at very high risk with underlying conditions would be brought up the order and those at high risk would similarly be brought up. That was done on good, scientific health advice. We must follow such advice as the medics are best placed to make the call on that. My understanding is that the GP system is working effectively, although there may be variations and cases where there are problems. I can cite an example of people I know where one would do it different but it is not just GPs as pharmacists will be rowing in.
It is essential to extend the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes so people can seek a judicial review, if required. That is a legal entitlement. It would allow the Director of Public Prosecutions to continue its investigation. If any testimonies are not recovered, survivors can seek a remedy under the general data protection regulation, GDPR, as required by EU law.
Yesterday, the Government passed the Social Democrats motion to extend the commission but it will not do it. We all know this is a cynical move to avoid the optics of Government Deputies voting against extending the commission. The Government can simply ignore it until the commission dissolves on Sunday. It is unbelievable, cynical and beyond disappointing. I do not know how the Minister will square that with the electorate, survivors or himself, but the legislation is ready to go. Will the Minister please change his approach and honour the motion that was already passed in the interests of justice and democracy?
I did not hear the interview but I understand the Data Protection Commissioner, DPC, was on the radio this morning and she indicated she would continue to work with the relevant designated data authorities for the records of the 550 or so survivors. I believe the approach the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, has taken has been correct and appropriate, which it must be.
People are always entitled to a judicial review but the Minister's focus is correctly on making sure that the data, which are the subject of real concern, are accessible in a way that is appropriate and is in compliance with the DPC.
The Government's gratitude for the heroic work our healthcare workers have done to protect us all during Covid was revealed as thoroughly hollow when it voted down the People Before Profit motion in October to pay student nurses and midwives for their work on placements. What the Government did promise was a review of their allowances. The review offered them an absolutely pathetic €100 a week, but even that has not been paid. It was supposed to be backdated, but student nurses and midwives have not got a cent. Now they are concerned that they may be punished because the cancellation of placements in January may have to be fitted in outside the college term at another point in the year. That is an absolute disgrace.
I will check and revert to the Deputy on when that payment was due, why it has not proceeded and if payment was due, why it has not come through. The Government's approach is to make sure that we retain a good nurse education training system. I believe we made the correct decision strategically as a country some years ago to introduce a degree course for nurses. As I understand, the international assessment of nursing training, education and skills development shows us to be very high quality. It is a system that works.
I ask the Government to consider a new beef exceptional aid measures, BEAM, scheme to support beef finishers and beef farmers. They are facing catastrophic losses bringing their product to market because of falling prices at factory gates and reduced demand on the Continent due to Covid.
In addition, they are dealing with rising input prices for fertiliser and meat supplements. A frozen pizza in a supermarket, by weight, sells for more than Irish beef cuts, which is a tragedy for beef farmers. Will the Minister please look at introducing a beef exceptional aid measure scheme and for urgent action from the beef task force to try to get visibility on the pricing and supply chain?
The Deputy would say that I would say this but my colleague, the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, has just opened up the organic scheme. Approximately 500 or 600 farmers will be able to go into it. I mention it because I think that is the future for Irish farming, especially beef and lamb. It offers the prospect of reducing the input costs and increasing the price that we get on the market, which I understand to be patently clear, since one can see the price of one versus the other. Our food strategy is coming close to fruition now. I believe that it is in the interest of farmers to go in this green way because it is the best way of guaranteeing a price.
I thank the Minister for meeting with the Tipperary groups last Friday night. It was a meaningful meeting with Jobs4Tipp, March4Tipp, Councillor Anne Marie Ryan and indeed the Tipperary Town Chamber of Commerce. They really appreciated it. I hope the Minister continues the collaboration in an effort to get the trucks out of the town with a ring road.
We have had bad weather in the last ten days in Tipperary. Areas of Tipperary, Cahir, Cashel, the Knockmealdowns and the Galtees were badly hit. I salute the outdoor staff and engineering staff but we need extra funding to deal with this outburst of water and flooding. It caused substantial damage and we need money for drainage. We acknowledge the annual funding we got but we need a top-up. I ask the Minister to look at it. He might meet Tipperary County Council following its request for a meeting. I thank the Minister for his meaningful involvement and look forward to the future.
I thank the Deputy. I hope that I did not get myself or anyone else into trouble. I found the meeting useful and I commit to meeting Tipperary County Council about the issue. The meeting was about the issue of roads and I was particularly interested with my own roots being in that neck of the woods. Clear problems exist in Tipperary town because of the volume of freight traffic passing through. The roads programme that we signed off on two or three weeks ago contains more than €600 million in spending. I will look at any instance where weather conditions have caused a particular local problem but in my mind, it is well-provisioned. We have increased spending for repairs and maintenance to keep a steady state condition of our roads. I look forward to meeting Tipperary County Council about similar local issues.
Over the past six or eight months, a court case was resolved regarding people who are entitled to a primary medical certificate. Following a lot of the usual spin doctoring from the HSE and Department of Health, this is open but people are not getting appointments. The HSE and Department are prioritising Covid and leaving people with disabilities unable to get a primary medical certificate. Does the Minister think it is right that we are treating people with disabilities this way and what are we going to do about it?
I understand that following a Supreme Court decision in June last year, the Minister for Finance requested that the assessment process for primary medical certificates be suspended. On the passing of the Finance Act 2020, which provided for the medical criteria in primary legislation, I understand that the Minister for Health instructed the HSE to recommence assessments from 1 January 2021. As the Deputy stated, there unfortunately were some delays in processing assessments due to the involvement of medical officers in the national Covid-19 response, as well as ongoing public health restrictions. The HSE is continuing to monitor the situation and I will bring the Deputy's comment and concerns to it following this question.
I am not going to waste time. I have a list before me. Deputy Martin Browne is second on the list. That is all I can do. If Deputy Browne wants to give his space to Deputy McNamara, then so be it.
I raise the commitment in the programme for Government to reduce our carbon footprint. A lorry recently crashed in Shannonbridge and I have been informed that it was later discovered that the truck in question was carrying a consignment of wood pellets that had been imported all the way from Australia. I have sat in the Joint Committee on Agriculture and the Marine listening to how the Government has made decisions which have resulted in the horticultural sector being in danger and peat now being imported from elsewhere in Europe. How does any of this fit in with a sustainable green strategy, when imports are increasing along with all of the emissions that go with that? I think the Government is having a laugh with us with regard to our carbon footprint.
Why are restrictions being imposed on Irish industries before proper thought has been given to filling the gap which is left and the impact these decisions will have on Irish businesses? The just transition fund will do precious little for many in the horticultural sector. I thank the Minister for meeting people in Tipperary last week. At the next meeting, the Minister might meet all of the stakeholders involved.
It makes no sense for peat to be imported, as Deputy Browne said. I received figures from the Department of the Taoiseach showing that €3.5 million worth of peat was imported into this country last year. We have workers who lost their jobs during a global pandemic. It is not right. Some 17,000 jobs, or more, are at risk. The midlands are suffering adversely. The Minister needs to take on board that the transition is not fair and counties such as Offaly are bearing the brunt of empty aspirations and rhetoric. People are losing their jobs and they have bills and mortgages to pay. I ask the Minister to wake up and take action.
Peat is coming into Ireland from five countries around Europe. This situation is meant to be the same for everyone in Europe, but here in Ireland people cannot stir because of the environmental impact assessment, EIA, requirement for 30 ha. This situation must be addressed.
This is clear evidence of tokenism rather than real environmental action. An ideological pursuit by some of the Minister's colleagues to try to eliminate the use of peat for horticultural activities has resulted in a situation where peat is being imported. We also face the very real prospect of jobs, such as those in the mushroom sector, being exported. We could lose a vibrant part of the Irish economy when there has been no real strategy put in place to find an alternative.
I raised this issue about peat last week and about straw being put back into the ground by farmers.
They were relying on peat for bedding and now, because of the legislation the Government is trying to introduce to require farmers to put the straw back into the ground, additional pressure will be put on them. The last two speakers are 100% correct. This all goes back to the fact that the Government does not have a clue what it is doing.
That is why we supported some 39 projects on which the Just Transition Commissioner, Kieran Mulvey, had worked with local communities. There was concern that some of these projects might not be able to qualify for funding approved by European institutions but, from what I hear, that will not be a problem for the vast majority. We will spend and invest that money and we will support Bord na Móna in its switch from brown to green. It rightly recognises that the skills it has in managing bogs can be used in this low-carbon future and that we can create employment, energy and industry on the back of that.
Peat extraction is a very significant environmental issue but it is not an issue of export. The vast majority of our peat was always exported. Most of the peat extracted for horticultural use was used by Dutch and UK growers. We have to make sure that the mushroom and horticultural industries here survive and thrive and I believe they will. We will have to look at a variety of different solutions, including the use of imported products, and look for new substitutes but the real opportunity in the midlands-----
To register with the Teaching Council, teachers are required to do an immersive Gaeltacht course. That costs €1,500 and includes bed and board. That is not possible this year so they are doing an online course instead, for which they are being charged €1,300. Students on State courses will have that reimbursed but those in the private sector will not. Does the Minister accept that the charge of €1,300 for an online course is exorbitant when it is only €1,500 for a course which includes bed and board? Will he look into having this remedied?
I do accept that and I can understand the Deputy's frustration and why he wanted to ask the question. It is a fair question but I do not have the answer to it immediately. It seems unfair and I will ask the relevant Department to come back to the Deputy on it directly.
There are reports from many GP surgeries across the State that they have not received the vaccines they were due to receive in recent days. Today in Ballyfermot, a 91-year-old woman was in a GP surgery waiting for her vaccine but had to be told to go home. That is happening far too often. Numerous other such cases were raised with the Minister today. Can he find out what is happening and can this be stopped? If it is communicated to GPs that they will receive vaccines on a given day and if older people are lining up to get them, it is deeply unfair for them to be sent home. I ask the Government to get its act together on this issue and to get the communication right. If vaccines are promised, they should be delivered.
On the same issue, but in my constituency of Cork South-West, the roll-out of the vaccine has been very confusing to say the least. In some situations, even up to a week ago, doctors in west Cork did not even have vaccines for themselves, never mind their patients. Perhaps that has been corrected but home helps in west Cork, who are at the front line, have not yet received the vaccine. It is unbelievable to see the roll-out moving on through the categories while some in the first categories have not yet been looked after. I would appreciate it if the Minister could explain why this is happening so that I can explain it to my constituents.
I have been contacted by student nurses who are to go on placement in a number of months who have not been given their first vaccine. They have been called back a second time to be given their first vaccine. They feel embarrassed because people who are over 85, some of whom have contacted me, still do not have a date for their first vaccination. There are vaccines in Tuam but there are no needles. There is confusion in this regard. We will not be able to roll this out within the steady timeframe required if this confusion continues.
On the same issue, we have the same situation in Cobh. More than 60 appointments for people over 85 years to get their vaccinations were made for last weekend and two surgeries in the town did not got their vaccines. It is very confusing and disheartening for the patients. They are elderly and very nervous. There must be clarity in this regard because it is starting to cause hysteria, especially in my constituency of Cork East. Something similar is also happening in Youghal. It must be looked at.
Will Deputies Cullinane, Michael Collins and Buckley provide me with specific details? We cannot have a 91-year-old woman in that situation. I do not know the circumstances. If the Deputies will provide details, I will forward them to the HSE to try to find out what happened.
In response to Deputy Tóibín, we are in the second week of a three-week roll-out. In those circumstances, I trust and expect that if someone has not heard about their vaccination yet, they will hear about it in the coming days. If they do not, they should follow up and make sure to get it. While there will undoubtedly be cases of difficulties or shortages - one GP in Belmullet was short and received vaccines from a neighbouring parish where there was an excess - my sense of what is happening around the country is that, as soon as vaccines come in, they go out. We did 78,000 or 79,000 last week when the target was 80,000. We are aiming for 100,000 this week. It is working. There may be cases in which it is not working and we have to find and address these. The public should, however, have confidence that the system is working.
I commend the Government on making good progress on the vaccines. Some 45% getting a first dose by the end of April, 60% by the end of May and 80% by the end of June is very satisfactory. My question is on those under the age of 16, for whom no vaccine is approved. Yesterday, we saw the death from Covid of a person aged 16. I know there is no approved vaccine for this cohort but has the Government developed a strategy to keep those people safe? Should we consider vaccinating their own carers? When will the pharmacists be involved in the systematic roll-out?
There has been a change with regard to the age rule. Until recently, the rule applied to those under 18. That change followed medical advice. I understand that the vaccine was not tested in those younger age cohorts and that is one of the reasons the vaccine is not to be rolled out to them. Their carers will all get vaccinated when their category within the order of 15 is reached. We want to get everyone, the entire population aged over 16, vaccinated. Anyone caring for those under 16 will be included. As I said to Deputy Kelly and others earlier, I expect the HSE to be able to publish the exact timetable for the roll-out, including with regard to the involvement of pharmacists, shortly.
I raise the issue of private school bus transport. Schools will be back, to some degree, on Monday and we also expect private school bus transport to return. I refer to non-Bus Éireann transport. These providers will fall very far short of the break-even point. Those working in some similar services are allowed to stay on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. I ask that the Minister consider allowing private school bus operators to stay on the PUP until such time as schools are back at full capacity.
The Deputy makes a fair point. I will talk to the Minister for Education, who has responsibility for the budget for and operation of the school bus service. Under the current level 5 restrictions, capacity on buses is limited. Even at lower levels, capacity is still restricted to 50%. We have provided for that but I will check and report back to the Deputy.
Considering the great impact this winter lockdown has on the mental health of so many groups and people right across the State and given that one is more likely to meet people in Herbert Park than on a golf course or athletics track, surely one size does not fit all when it comes to sport.
I ask the Minister to provide the data that support not allowing children to train outdoors in a controlled environment. People need to see those data. What preparations are being put in place to prepare for a return to sport?
On the same issue, an announcement was made two hours ago by the GAA that the Munster post-primary schools competition has been cancelled for the 2020-21 season. This will have a very serious effect on young people in school and the same could happen with many other sporting organisations. What plans are in place to support young people in sport and the arts, particularly in the context of their mental health? This is a serious issue affecting our young.
I agree with both Deputies. I recall that in the last long and difficult lockdown in November, we made an exception to the rules to allow young people to train and take part in sport. I do not want to promise ahead because we must wait and see what happens in the coming weeks. However, in terms of the opening up that will occur if the numbers continue to come down, one of the first priorities will be the ability of our young people to engage in sport, which is so good for their health and well-being. Our health officials recognise that and it is one of our key priorities.