Thursday, 4 March 2021
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
Before we move on, ní mór dom a rá go bhfuilimid i lár Sheachtain na Gaeilge. Bainimid úsáid as coincheap na meithle i gcónaí. I spiorad na meithle, b'fhéidir go mbeimid in ann obair as lámh a chéile chun a chinntiú go mbeidh deis ag chuile dhuine ar an liosta teacht isteach inniu. Tá 24 ainm agam anseo. We are in the middle of Seachtain na Gaeilge. In the spirit of the meithle, which is a word that is used often here, I ask the Members to work together to ensure that as many of those on the list as possible get the chance to speak today. I ask Deputies to be as brief as possible and to stick to questions. As it stands, there are 24 names on the list, in addition to the leaders.
This morning, the Irish Independent reported that one of the authors of the Government's pro-developer shared equity scheme has confirmed that it may push up house prices. Mr. David Duffy, who heads IBEC's Property Industry Ireland, was asked about the scheme and whether it would push up prices. He said it would be something that would contribute to the demand side. This confirms the concerns of the Tánaiste's party colleagues in Dublin City Council, who wrote to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage last month, urging him to scrap this scheme. In their letter, they stated that it is a demand-side measure and risks a return to the failed housing policies of the Celtic tiger era. Does the Tánaiste agree with Property Industry Ireland and the councillors on Dublin City Council that this scheme will push on house prices? Will he support his own party colleagues, including the Minister for Finance's own parliamentary assistant, who have called for this reckless scheme to be scrapped?
I do not agree with Property Industry Ireland on this particular issue. The reality is that when one does something that increases demand for housing, it may have a side effect - increased house prices. However, that does not mean that people should not be helped to buy. People argued against the help to buy scheme for first-time buyers because they thought it would increase house prices. The evidence that it did is pretty minimal, but the same arguments were used. Yet, it helped tens of thousands of people to buy their first home. The new scheme being developed by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage will help hundreds, if not thousands, of people to buy their first home. It happened in my local authority area of Fingal ten to 15 years ago. I know many people who were helped to buy their first home through shared equity schemes. If it is the case that increased demand for housing increases house prices, then the solution is not to stop people from buying houses or to make it possible to buy houses, the solution is to increase supply. That is how house prices can be reduced. That is why it is so disappointing to see the Sinn Féin Party vote against new housing in the Dublin city area. The party has helped to block the development of more than 2,000 new homes in Dublin city alone.
I am sure we all agree that last night's "RTÉ Investigates" programme on the impact of illegal adoptions was really shocking. The requirement for legislation on adoptive information and tracing is being brought forward by Senator Bacik in the Seanad tomorrow, a person who the Tánaiste acknowledged previously as a very good legislator. What are we going to do to ensure that those who were illegally adopted have legal certainty?
My former colleague, Joan Burton, published draft legislation in 2019, with Ms Anne O'Meara, who was impacted by illegal adoption. The Bill would allow people to go to the Circuit Court to get a declaration of adoption where there is not clear documentary evidence that their birth certificate would be admissible. There would be admissibility and they would have a court decision. What is the Government going to do to provide those who were illegally adopted with legal certainty into the future?
I watched the "RTÉ Investigates" programme last night. It was really well produced and well researched, and I want to extend my compliments to those involved in putting it together. I also pay tribute to the people who told their stories. It cannot have been easy. It is hard to imagine a social worker coming to one's door to break the news that one's parents are not one's biological parents, one's name is not the name one was born with and one's birth date is not one's birth date. We must do everything we can to assist these people and help to make up for some of the wrongs of the past. That means giving them access to records about them and to their birth certificates. It also entails regularising their status, their names, inheritance tax and all those issues. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, and the Government are committed to doing exactly that.
I have very strong feelings about GDPR. When I supported GDPR, I supported it on the basis that it would give people access to their personal information, ensure their personal information would be protected and ensure information could be corrected if it was wrong. It was never intended that the GDPR would be used to stop people from getting access to their personal information. That is what is currently happening and it is incumbent on us, as a Government, and on the Oireachtas, to change the law in that regard.
People have been waiting years for the right to access their identity. Swift action must be taken to bring closure to that.
The Government is planning to give €500 million for the new maternity hospital to a private charity set up by the Sisters of Charity. The core values of the constitution of St. Vincent's Holdings are identical to those of the Sisters of Charity. Given last night's "RTÉ Investigates" programme on illegal adoptions, it is utterly unacceptable that the Government would gift the National Maternity Hospital to a private charity that has been set up. Given the need for accountability and the role of the Sisters of Charity in carrying out illegal adoptions, how can the Government justify gifting the new National Maternity Hospital to a private entity set up by the Sisters of Charity?
I will have to check with the Minister for Health on that, but I do not think that is the correct representation of what is intended. The hospital will be built with public funds and will belong to the people of Ireland. There may be an issue around the technicalities of the ownership of the land on which the hospital is built, but I am quite confident that the hospital itself will be controlled and owned by the public. I will double check that with the Minister and revert to the Deputy because the situation has changed over time.
Ten families and individuals, in the St. Helen's Court apartment complex in Dún Laoghaire, whose plight I have raised around 20 to 30 times in the past four years, received letters to tell them they will be evicted within ten days of the lifting of level 5 restrictions, or 56 days from the receipt of the letter.
I want to stress the landlord in this case is a vulture fund. The residents have always paid their rent and they are model tenants. However, because of loopholes in the Residential Tenancies Act and the fact the Covid-related ban on evictions is linked only to level 5 restrictions, these ten individuals and families will be knocking on the door of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council this week saying they are to be made homeless. They are in a building where, in the same complex, there are ten apartments that have been sitting empty for two years. The tenants are asking why they need to be evicted and why they cannot continue living there. Does the Tánaiste recognise this is fundamentally wrong and measures need to be taken to stop perfectly good tenants from being thrown out on the street?
I appreciate the Deputy may have raised this matter before but it is not a case with which I am familiar. I certainly will let the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, know the Deputy has raised it in the Dáil and I will try to get him a proper reply from the Minister.
I have a brief question on the Defence (Amendment) Bill 2020, Report Stage of which was scheduled to take place in the Dáil before Christmas. It is March now and we still have not had sight of it. I fully appreciate the delays caused by the third wave of the pandemic, but perhaps the Tánaiste might have an indicative date for when the Bill is likely to come back before the Dáil. It is badly and urgently needed by the Reserve Defence Force.
I am advised we are not yet ready to bring forward that Bill on Report Stage. There are some delays and issues that need to be worked out. I will arrange for a written reply to be sent to the Deputy in the next couple of days explaining the situation.
There is huge inequity in the scheme of funding to support artists, especially single artists, arts centres, dance schools and other groups like that. This scheme is under the remit of the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin. The application process is the same as under the old system we had prior to the pandemic. It needs to be adapted and changed because the Arts Council and several other larger groups have got huge funding, sometimes from two or three different strands of funding, while groups such as the South Tipperary Arts Centre in Clonmel, dance schools and different festival groups in Tipperary are denied funding, as well as the single artists who have got no supports. The work of all of these people and groups is of huge benefit to communities and society. We need to change the funding application process to a new system that will take cognisance of those people and artists and the concerts and festivals they run every year. We need a sense of hope that we will be out of the pandemic and can have some festivals this year, but those involved cannot get the funding. The Arts Council got tens of millions in funding. It is not fair or transparent and it is not an equal playing field.
I thank the Deputy for his question. The Minister, Deputy Martin, is working on some new schemes at the moment, one for live performance and another for musicians. Perhaps it is possible, as part of this, she will take into account the Deputy's views.
The only announcement of new flight routes out of Ireland for the past 12 months have been out of Northern Ireland. Today, eight new routes were announced out of Belfast City Airport by Ryanair, which, along with Aer Lingus, has largely moved its operations out of this jurisdiction. In this State, we have had only base closures and flight route cancellations. Is any of this ringing alarm bells for the Government? Is the Tánaiste concerned the net effect of the restrictions the Government has introduced, which are limited to ports and airports ,is merely to drive up business for Northern Irish airports at the expense of airports in this State and the people they employ?
I thank the Deputy for his question. It does ring alarm bells for the Government, quite frankly. Here in the Republic, south of the Border, anybody arriving through a port or airport has to have a negative PCR test and must quarantine at home or, in some cases, will soon have to quarantine in a hotel. There is a very different approach in Northern Ireland. For people arriving there from Britain and, in the future, from other parts of Europe and other parts of the world, potentially, there is no requirement they show a negative PCR test and no requirement for mandatory quarantine at home or in a hotel. There are members of the Sinn Féin Party in the Chamber and I ask them to use their influence in the Northern Ireland Executive, which is co-chaired by that party, to change this policy.
-----whereas the reverse approach is being taken in Northern Ireland. It was the same last summer when the Northern Ireland Executive agreed a green list of 60 countries, supported by Sinn Féin and the DUP-----
I respectfully wish to highlight the problems with forestry felling licences. Very few are being granted despite the Bill that was passed recently in the Dáil. Munster Joinery employs 1,400 people on the Cork-Kerry border and has done so for years. Kelly's of Ballydesmond has been supplying the timber to the Munster Joinery plant for many years. However, since 9 September last year, Kelly's has not brought one stick of timber into that plant. The company has put in 27 applications for felling licences but none of them has been granted. One of those licence applications goes back to 2013. A very honest man from Rathmore is being denied his application since 2013.
There is a very serious issue with forestry felling. We have a crisis because an objector has held up the whole process. In some cases I know of, a licence cannot be got where forests have been blown due to storms. There is a very worrying situation at GP Wood in Cork, which employs 500 people, because it has a massive shortage of timber. Another growing worry is the Government's targets for growing forestry will not be met because farmers are running a mile from forestry at present. The problem is there are so many restrictions attached to any new licences that might be given. I plead with the Tánaiste to intervene on this issue.
I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue. A big part of our climate action strategy is to increase the amount of land under the cover of forestry. That will not be possible if we are living in a country where it is virtually impossible to get a licence to plant or fell. I know many people are experiencing that at the moment. It is something the Government is apprised of and it relates to certain court cases. The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, who is totally committed to sustainable forestry, is working very hard on a solution.
It has been reported today that 300 extra training places for doctors that were funded and put in place in the earlier part of the pandemic look set now to be cancelled. Those places were launched by the Tánaiste, when he was Taoiseach, in April last year. Having 300 fewer doctors working in the Irish healthcare system at a time when we have a huge crisis is not what should be happening. The Irish Medical Organisation has written to the HSE asking for the funding to be restored and for those places to go ahead. Will the Tánaiste back that call and make sure it happens?
I thank the Deputy. I am going to check this out. I only read about this yesterday. What I launched this time last year was a one-off announcement that we provide an extra 200 or 300 internships, particularly for medical students from overseas who train in Ireland and often struggle to get an internship. I had hoped that would continue. It seems it is not and I do not know why. I do think we treat overseas doctors and foreign medical students unfairly in Ireland, and that is not right. I will check it out over the next couple of days and see what I can do.
I want to raise the situation of Abigail McQuillan from Blackrock in Dundalk. Her mum, Deborah, made contact with my office. Abigail is 16 and is getting ministerially approved cannabis from a London clinic through a pharmacy in Newry.
She has Lennox–Gastaut syndrome, which is life-changing. She has been on the product for nearly six months. It is usually imported from the Netherlands for €5,000 but it is being obtained for €600 per month. Ms Deborah McQuillan has dealt with the HSE, including the primary care reimbursement service. My office has dealt with the matter multiple times and we are told further information is needed. One is not told the exact information required. We just need this issue dealt with and the system streamlined.
I thank the Deputy. I am sorry to hear about the experience his constituent is having. I am afraid I do not have any information on the particular issue. Reimbursement is a matter for the HSE. I will certainly let the Minister for Health know the matter was raised in the Dáil.
I want to raise an anomaly with the Tánaiste. The Government provided clarity to leaving certificate students on 17 February. Five days before that, on 12 February, the window for external applicants to apply for leaving certificate 2021 closed unbeknown to many. I have a constituent who sat the leaving certificate 2020 examinations in November and wants to repeat one subject in leaving certificate 2021, but has missed the window. Every other year, there is a late application opportunity but it does not seem to exist this year. Could the Tánaiste follow up with the Minister for Education and perhaps the State Examinations Commission because I do not seem to be getting anywhere with them?
Mr. Julian Assange has done the world a huge service by exposing crimes and human rights violations in Iraq and Afghanistan. He deserves everybody's gratitude, not incarceration. He has suffered and has been tortured. Will the Tánaiste raise his case with the British ambassador and call for and demand his release?
"If wars can be started by lies, peace can be started by truth," according to Mr. Julian Assange. The case of Mr. Assange is very simple. Acting as a journalist and publisher in co-ordination with The Guardian, Der Spiegeland The New York Times, he exposed major war crimes by US forces and their allies. The National Union of Journalists has said the charges seek to criminalise activity that for many of its members is their daily work. As Mr. Assange is not an American citizen, his extradition by the British Government would mean that the US would have carte blancheacross the globe to persecute journalists and publishers for revealing state crimes. I ask the Tánaiste to raise his case with the British ambassador and the US Administration.
I was delighted to hear the Tánaiste's reply a few moments ago on the "RTÉ Investigates" programme last night. We all believed GDPR would protect people's identity and data, yet we find it is now being used to deny them their data. It is about time that we did something about this. I have been in contact with constituents who have been told they were adopted, but nothing else. There is a blank. The horror of that is really concerning. We have a system that actually denies people information about their own data and lives. To use GDPR for this is totally inappropriate. The legal basis on which it is being done needs to be checked by the Government. It needs to publish the reason it can be done in that way.
I thank the Deputy. All of us in this House, when we voted for and supported GDPR, the new European law on personal data, understood it would mean that people would have access to their personal information, that it would be protected and that it would be corrected where it was wrong. The law on people who have been adopted, both legally and illegally, has been interpreted in a different way. In fairness to Tusla, it is just following the law as it understands it so the responsibility falls on the Government and Oireachtas to resolve this. I am aware that the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, is committed to doing exactly that.
Chonaiceamar radharc uafásach an tseachtain seo caite ar shráideanna Bhaile Átha Cliath. We were all appalled by the scenes on the streets in Dublin last weekend and the violent disorder targeted at the Garda, which has served us so well in this very difficult pandemic. It showed total disregard for the more than 4,000 people who have lost their lives. How can we prevent a repeat of this sort of incident? Can we look at the role of social media and the misinformation that is being spread encouraging people to join such protests? Can we move against those organising such displays of violence and disorder?
On a related issue, I have raised the Garda Síochána compensation (malicious injuries) Bill many times. The Bill appears to have become more urgent and important following the events on the streets last week. Can a special effort be made to expedite its enactment?
Gabhaim buíochas leis na Teachtaí as a gcuid ceisteanna. I am told the Garda Síochána Bill will be published in this session, an seisiún seo. On Deputy Bruton's question, there are two ways we can deal with this. In the first instance, it is a question of Garda action. It is unlawful both to organise and participate in these gatherings so Garda action to prevent them and police them is part of the solution. Another part is putting pressure on digital platforms to take down sites that promote violence or encourage people to break the public health regulations. I have made contact with the platforms on that and, in fairness to some of them, they have already taken action and taken down some of the sites.
Today is World Engineering Day. After this contribution, I will be speaking at an Engineers Ireland event to celebrate the role of engineering in building Ireland's sustainable future. The Tánaiste has a personal interest in the issue of innovation. I commend him on the work he is doing in his Department. As an engineer, I recognise the significant contribution Irish engineers will make to our economy and society as we tackle the challenges of energy and mobility, in particular, and also the contribution they will make to the global effort to mitigate carbon emissions. The Government has committed to developing a long-term sustainable funding model for higher education. Does the Government agree that this is critical to ensuring we can continue to have a supply of engineers to meet the enormous challenges faced by our country?
I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to acknowledge that today is World Engineering Day. I acknowledge the enormous contribution that engineers make to strengthening our economy and making it a better place, particularly when it comes to housing and infrastructure. I very much agree that finding a sustainable model for higher education is essential because we need to continue to educate people and train people for the professions of the future. Engineering is one of those.
Thankfully we are seeing clear evidence that Covid-19 vaccines are working. Now that those most at risk in nursing homes and the elderly in the community are becoming increasingly protected from the dangers of Covid-19, it is time to do what we can to tackle loneliness and isolation among older people. It is time to ease the restrictions on nursing home visits. I fully accept these were needed in the past. The general population sees signs of hope that the vaccination process is working. I would like us to reopen our day care centres for the elderly living in the community, some of whom depend on those centres for meals and hygiene services and to serve as a social outlet. It is 12 months since most elderly people living at home had a chance to avail of these day care services. Since most of the elderly population is now vaccinated, we should seriously consider reopening these services as a matter of priority. It would also help to tackle the growing mental health pandemic among the elderly. I urge the Tánaiste to have these services opened as quickly as possible and to allow visits to nursing homes. The population in general sees that our vaccine programme is working and that we are on the road back to normality.
I thank the Deputy. I very much appreciate the sentiments. I am sympathetic to them. At the moment, it is too soon for us to make those kinds of decisions and calls. The next decision date is 5 April. In the run-up to that date, the decisions in question are the kinds of decisions we will consider in consultation with NPHET, the public health doctors and the scientific advisers.
There has to be a dividend for being vaccinated and a benefit for people who are vaccinated. We need more data and we want to see the cases in the community come down more.
I bring to the Tánaiste's attention the difficulties with the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme for those living on the border between Dublin 15 in our constituency and Meath. A constituent came forward to me who was looking at a house less than a hundred metres from the Meath border, so close that it has a Dublin 15 Eircode. The problem is that if she was on the Fingal payment, she would get €1,250. Unfortunately, with Meath it is €975. I ask that we make the HAP system more flexible when dealing with situations like this, particularly in the midst of a housing crisis.
I thank the Deputy. I have come across similar cases. I am not sure if it is the exact same constituent. I will raise it with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on behalf of us both. It is a hard one to solve because any time a boundary is moved, the same issue arises. If the Dublin 15 figure is applied in Clonee, why not apply it to Dunboyne and then Dunshaughlin? These things are always difficult but the Deputy makes a good point.
We have put in place huge supports for businesses during this pandemic but we have not done enough for those who do not have a fixed premises. I am thinking of many people in small businesses or who are self-employed who might have a catering truck that operates at festivals or events. Will the Government bring forward supports for them? They have fixed costs but not a fixed premises. The business aid scheme was aimed to perhaps help them but I have yet to see the details on that. I ask for the details to be brought forward.
In Limerick, people going out on their walks could go to the coffee trucks and the rest and get their cup of coffee. The licensing was not in place for these and they were all closed down because of licensing rules. We need to relax licensing rules for pop-up coffee trucks so people can go out for a walk and have a cup of coffee and so these businesses are supported.
We have been asking people to spend local and stay local for the summer, but a few weeks ago Fáilte Ireland announced support schemes for outdoor dining and infrastructure with local authorities. My issue is they picked eight areas, namely, Dublin, Killarney, Limerick, Waterford, Galway, Cork, Athlone and Kilkenny. They forgot the Carlows, and small counties like my own are struggling to make ends meet and are being forgotten when there are grant supports like that in conjunction with local authorities. Will the Tánaiste go back to Fáilte Ireland and make sure everyone gets these grants? It is unfair to single out eight locations and leave out the rest.
I am sure the Deputy will not begrudge Kilkenny being one of the eight areas that benefited from those grants, but she makes a reasonable point as to why Carlow should be included as well. I will take that up with Fáilte Ireland.
On the small business aid scheme that Deputy McAuliffe raised, that will be launched next week or so and it is a cash grant to help those businesses with fixed costs. It will only apply to businesses that have a rateable premises, and I acknowledge that raises an issue for people whose business is home-based or based on vehicles that have to be taxed and insured. I will look at that. The new scheme is not the last scheme the Government will bring in.
On page 78 of the programme for Government, there is a commitment to enshrining disability rights by finalising the legislation required following Ireland's ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I note the Disability (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2016 lapsed on the dissolution of the previous Dáil and has not been restored. Will the Tánaiste give me an update on progress for legislating on this important issue?
I thank Deputy Ó Cathasaigh for raising this issue and acknowledge his interest in issues relating to people with disabilities and his advocacy in this area. I checked in advance and that Bill has not been restored to the Order Paper when the new Dáil was formed. There are issues around policy and principles that need to be worked out. I will ask the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, to provide more detail on that in the form of a written response.
This is also in connection with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, especially in relation to a person who has been in contact with me, namely, Catherine Gallagher from Achill. She is 23 years of age and has undergone dozens of operations. She ploughed through college and has now been offered a scholarship for a PhD. She is told that if she takes up that PhD and scholarship, her disability benefits, medical card and travel pass will be taken from her. The Tánaiste has been Minister for Health and for Social Protection. Please tell me this cannot be right in this day and age, that can we have that barrier in front of people like Catherine Gallagher and many others who have been in contact with me.
We know that people with disabilities constitute one of the sectors that has suffered most due to Covid-19. I have been contacted by people with disabilities who are entrepreneurs, who want to start their own business or who want to get their businesses going again but there is a lack of support for them. Will the Tánaiste and the Government provide supports for people with disabilities to help get them up and running and put them on a level footing with everyone else? They need support, especially at this time.
On that latter question, if I recall correctly from my time as Minister for Social Protection, someone in receipt of the disability allowance can move over to the back to enterprise allowance and receive both social welfare payments and grant support to get their business up and running. Perhaps I will come back to the Deputy with some more information on that
On the issue raised by Deputy Conway-Walsh, a similar issue was raised by Deputy Dillon in our parliamentary party yesterday. I imagine it is the same case, and if it is, it sounds like a mistake. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, will look into it. It would be a terrible thing for somebody with a disability who has qualified for a scholarship to do a PhD to find he or she would lose his or her welfare payments as a result. There must be a way around it and, if there is not, we ought to find one. I thank the Deputy for raising the issue.