Thursday, 11 March 2021
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
There is a long list of speakers and I will do my best to get everybody in. With the co-operation of the Tánaiste, we will get as many in as we can. I appeal to Deputies to stay well under one minute, if possible, and we will then be able to get the replies.
In 2014, almost 14,000 people were brought before the courts for not paying their TV licence fees. In the previous year, 411 of those people were sent to prison for not paying their TV licence fees. A constituent of mine, a single mother, had the Garda call to her door and she was brought to Mountjoy Prison during this period for not having a TV licence. In the same year, the Davy 16 got together and formed a consortium for the sole purpose of swindling that company's client out of money. They were breaking the rules and regulations and not one of them has been held to account. In the same period, more than 40,000 people were essentially robbed by banks as a result of the tracker mortgage scandal. More than 100 of these individuals lost their family homes as a result. During the period in question, the Central Bank called time and again for the Government to provide it with additional powers to hold senior executives in the areas of finance, insurance and brokerage to account. Time and again, however, the Government has refused to bring forward legislation in this regard. There have been promises after promises but we still do not have legislation. When will the Government finally publish the legislation for which the Central Bank has been begging for more than three years?
The Central Bank already has extensive powers in this area. It can take action against individuals under its administrative sanctions procedure and fitness and probity regime. It can conduct an enforcement investigation into an individual, resulting in sanctions, including: a fine of up to €1 million; a requirement to pay the bank's costs for the investigation inquiry; and disqualification from working. The Central Bank can prohibit a person who is not fit and proper from performing any controlled function into the future. The Garda also has powers, as does the Director of Corporate Enforcement, who is aware of this matter. I think the Deputy is referring to the Central Bank (Amendment) Bill 2018, which would bring in a senior executive accountability regime. This was only proposed for the first time in 2018 in a report from the Central Bank and therefore could not have applied to offences that occurred four years previously. The Minister for Finance will bring that legislation forward as soon as possible.
I regret to say that the Tánaiste's follow-up answer to my question during Leader's Questions was not satisfactory. It has prompted me to ask the following questions. I listened to the Minister for Health answering questions earlier on the vaccine roll-out. Have the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste or any other member of the Government spoken with AstraZeneca? Could the Tánaiste confirm that somebody in government has spoken to AstraZeneca? At some stage, has somebody in government spoken to the three current suppliers and to Johnson & Johnson, whose vaccine will hopefully be signed off on today? Has the Government spoken directly to all four companies?
I do not know. The Deputy would have to ask every member of Government or we can try to find out for him. I have spoken to Pfizer and to Johnson & Johnson. These are companies that have big operations here so I have done that. AstraZeneca does not have a big operation here. I know the Taoiseach has sought to speak to the CEO of AstraZeneca but I do not know whether that has happened. Again, I cannot speak for the Minister for Health but I am sure he can speak for himself.
On Monday, children in primary classes from third class to sixth class and fifth year secondary school students will return to in-person learning along with educators who are deemed high risk by Medmark Occupational Healthcare. Reports in the Irish Independentearlier this week showed that one in eight Covid cases were in children and teenagers under 18. Are we confident that we have done enough in terms of mitigation factors to keep those in school buildings safe? I am specifically talking about: ventilation, both natural and mechanical; mask-wearing; and whole-class testing. If cases go up, what are the additional mitigation mechanisms that will be employed to ensure that schools do not close again? We have to move beyond the binary options of school buildings being either open or closed.
This is probably more a question for the Minister for Health than a question on promised legislation. We are confident that we have done enough to ensure that schools are safe. So far, the return to school has been successful but, of course, more could be done in future. The Deputy will know from the plan that was published by Government two weeks ago that ventilation is a matter to which we are going to give more consideration because ventilation is increasingly understood to be of enormous significance when it comes to the spread of this virus. Professor Ferguson's report on antigen testing will be out in the next week or two as well and that may point to greater use of that form of testing in a number of different settings.
On Saturday, in the Tánaiste's constituency, George Nkencho will be buried and his family will, I am sure, be extraordinarily sad about this. I send our solidarity and support to the family. Given the disturbing circumstances relating to George's death at the end of last year - he was killed in his home by gardaí - does the Tánaiste accept the deep disturbance of his family and community regarding his death? Will the Tánaiste join with them in calling for an open public inquiry into the circumstances of the death of George Nkencho and in sending our solidarity and sympathy to his family when he is finally buried on Saturday?
I extend my condolences to the Nkencho family as well. I have spoken to them in person and to their solicitor. I have also been in contact with the Minister for Justice and the Garda about this matter. It is my strong view that there needs to be an independent inquiry into the death of George Nkencho. The way we do that is through the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC. I have confidence in GSOC as an independent body to carry out an investigation such as this.
On two occasions in the past year I have raised the scourge of illegal dumping, the damage it causes to the environment and water supplies and the fact that it is a blight on the landscape.
Penalties for those caught in the act of illegal dumping are not strict enough. It is ridiculous that a person caught on CCTV in the act of illegal dumping cannot be brought to court. It was recently reported that illegal dumping is costing local authorities up to €90 million a year to clean up and this does not factor in the time and effort put in by Tidy Towns committees and other volunteers. There is increased frustration that little is being done to tackle this problem which is getting completely out of control. On two separate occasions I have asked for a task force to be established, consisting of An Garda Síochána, departmental officials and local authorities, to deal with this situation. They must be given real powers including the power to use CCTV footage and the power to seize vehicles and equipment involved in illegal dumping with severe penalties imposed for those caught in the act and for the release of these vehicles.
I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. There should be no tolerance of illegal dumping which is an attack on our environment, communities and landscape. Penalties for illegal dumping are significant. People who are found responsible for unauthorised disposal of waste are liable to a maximum fine of €5,000 on summary conviction and-or imprisonment of up to 12 months, and to a maximum fine of €15 million on conviction on indictment and-or imprisonment for up to ten years. The upcoming circular economy Bill will also consider further changes to the fixed penalty notice system.
The Data Protection Commissioner provides guidance concerning statutory obligations placed on those using CCTV systems to collect personal data, and the rights and redress mechanisms available. My understanding is that the Data Protection Commissioner has written to the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications concerning data protection issues with the use of CCTV cameras for litter and waste enforcement processes. Her view is that the legislation provides local authorities with the power to prevent and investigate, and protect and prosecute littering and dumping, but do not provide for the processing of images taken by CCTV. That is currently being considered by the Minister and his Department.
A number of driving instructors have begun a campaign to allow essential driving tests, EDTs, to continue during the extended level 5 restrictions. We know how long that will go on for. They are also trying to set up their own union. Currently only essential workers who have been allocated driving tests are allowed to do the pre-test lessons. Surely if it is safe for one cohort of essential workers to do their lessons, it should be safe for them all, including the compulsory 12 EDT lessons. Another group of non-essential workers is awaiting tests and EDT lessons, and a further group is awaiting theory tests and driver licences. Will the Government consider changing the legislation to allow for EDTs and normal driving lessons to resume for essential workers? There will be an enormous backlog - there already is - at the end of the pandemic and these driving instructors need to be supported.
I thank the Deputy. I am sympathetic to the case he is making. I am not an expert in the area by any means. It is such a shame when we had got on top of the backlog of driving tests that we now have a very big one again. It limits people's freedom and their ability to take up employment. Later I will speak to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, to let them know that the Deputy has made some suggestions in this regard.
Arkle Resources has an exploration licence for lead deposits in Inishowen. It has continued to work during the level 5 restrictions. Does the Tánaiste believe that is appropriate? The licence is up for renewal on 10 April. Will he instruct the Department not to renew that licence given that it has continued to work? It is also affecting a special area of conservation, namely, the Magheradrumman Bog SAC.
The company may only continue to carry out those works if it is exempted under the regulations. Without having the details in front of me, I cannot say whether it is exempted. Obviously, it can only carry out that work if it is exempted under the public health regulations. The extension of the licence which flows from the Deputy's question would depend on the answer to that question and will be a matter for the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan.
In 2015, an amazing, young, bright, lovable individual, Lorcan O'Reilly, was stabbed to death not too far from here in Dublin's inner city. Many steps need to be taken to tackle the rise in knife crime throughout the city and that needs to start with dialogue with the families most affected by this brutal crime. The Minister for Justice has committed to engaging with Lorcan's mother Jenny. I ask the Tánaiste to ensure the Minister for Justice keeps this commitment and engages with Lorcan's family, and puts in place any resources needed to tackle knife crime.
I thank the Deputy. I am sure the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, will want to honour any commitment she has made on the matter. We all extend our condolences to the family. As the Deputy will appreciate, knife crime is a complex issue. He will be familiar with some of the studies from London and Glasgow as to which actions can help and which ones do not. It requires a response that is not just about criminal justice but is also a comprehensive social response. I know that the Minister has been apprised of that.
Tragically, another man who was sleeping rough has passed away on the streets of Cork. I send my sincere condolences to his family and friends on his passing. Shockingly, we have no way of knowing the number of people engaging with homeless services who passed away either in Cork or nationally because there is no database. The Minister has confirmed this to me. Without the full figures and without knowing the circumstances of these people, we are unable to put in the supports necessary to prevent people from dying on the streets. We need more shelters with wrap-around services to protect them. Will the Tánaiste ask the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to put in place a regional executive to collate these figures so that we can protect homeless people and try to prevent this from happening?
I am also very sorry to hear about that man's passing. I know the Minister is already aware of the issue. Having more accurate and up-to-date data on people who are in touch with homeless services would be very useful. As the Deputy knows, people who are homeless, just as people who are not, die for all sorts of different reasons. Having more information on that and the precise cause of death would be useful to everyone.
As the Tánaiste is aware, IVF treatment is provided through private practice. I have been contacted by couples in Wexford who are very concerned about this issue. We know that the most precious resource in any country is its children. We know that one in four couples struggles to start a family. However, IVF costs at least €5,000 and up to €9,000 with add-ons, which puts financial strain on many couples who are desperate to begin a family. Is the Government willing to subsidise at least three cycles of IVF? Would it be possible to include this in the next budget? What has happened to the €3 million that was supposed to have been set aside by the then Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, for this purpose in 2017?
IVF treatment and assisted human reproduction treatment are tax deductible at the standard rate and most of the medicines people may need to help them in their treatment are covered under the drug refund scheme. That still leaves couples bearing a very large cost if they need to avail of IVF services. Money has been set aside to help people with the cost of IVF, to do it through the public system. The last I heard was that it was the strong view of the Department of Health that we should introduce a law regulating this area first because this treatment is not regulated in Ireland at the moment, which causes significant difficulties. The view is that the legislation should be brought forward giving us a clear law on what is allowed and what is not, and then fund treatment on that basis.
Page 112 of the programme for Government states that the Government will honour Ireland's commitment to recognise the state of Palestine. Last month, Israel issued tenders for 2,500 new settlement homes in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, has condemned the decision to build new settlement units and said the Israeli Government is racing against time to eliminate any remaining possibility of a two-state solution. All Jewish settlements in the West Bank are regarded as illegal under international law and by much of the international community. When will the Government fulfil its promise to recognise the state of Palestine?
If I remember correctly, the programme for Government commits to recognising the state of Palestine as part of a two-state solution. We want to see a two-state solution, ensuring the security and longevity of the state of Israel and also allowing a state of Palestine to be established, with a control over the West Bank and Gaza as well. That has not yet happened but it is a matter in which the Minister for Foreign Affairs has an enormous interest and we will be using our position on the UN Security Council this year and next year to try to advance a peace settlement in that region.
I want to ask the Tánaiste about the commitments in regard to agriculture and rural communities. Following on from the announcement of the Kerry Group in regard to job losses in Charleville and Naas, particularly the outsourcing to third countries, has the Tánaiste as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, or his Department, been in contact with the Kerry Group in regard to those job losses? The concern locally is that this is only the thin edge of the wedge. Can the Tánaiste provide an assurance that his Department will liaise with the Kerry Group to ensure there is not large-scale job losses or outsourcing of employment within the Charleville factory?
I thank the Deputy. I have not been in direct contact recently with the Kerry Group, but my Department has and the information we have is that this is a consolidation exercise between Naas and Charleville and that redundancies will be voluntary rather than compulsory. I am alarmed to hear the Deputy's suggestion that, perhaps, job losses of a larger scale may be mooted. I will ask my officials to check with the company and I will come back to the Deputy with more information when I can.
I wish to raise an issue that I was aware of in my previous role but heard about again on the "Today with Claire Byrne" programme. Sarah was viciously attacked in her own home and suffered physical and emotional trauma. As part of her healing she attended counselling and, as happens in these sessions, she spoke her deepest thoughts and feelings in regard to what was going on for her. She was then forced to hand over the notes from her counselling sessions in regard to the trial of the person who attacked her. To rub salt into the wounds, she had to pay for those sessions while those who perpetrate such attacks can access counselling free of charge. Will the Tánaiste give a commitment that this issue will be addressed in any changes to legislation proposed in the programme for Government. It is deeply concerning that people are forced to hand over their counselling notes to a defence.
I thank the Deputy. I am sorry to hear about Sarah's experience. I caught a tiny bit of the interview on the radio this morning, but I did not hear it in its entirety. I will listen back to it in order that I can understand it a bit better. I do not know the details but I do know that conversations between therapists and, for example, doctors and clients are privileged and confidential. Maybe that is not always the case with counselling services. The Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, is signalling to me that she would like to come in.
On that issue, following on from the publication of the O'Malley report last year we have published an implementation plan, part of which is supporting a victim's journey. The key focus is to make sure that we support victims through what is an extremely difficult and traumatic experience, as outlined by the Deputy. There are a number of recommendations and actions, one of which is engagement with An Garda Síochána and the HSE to look at the process around counselling records and to make sure it is done in the most appropriate, efficient and effective way, as well as in a way that supports the victim more. This is very much part of the plan and it is something of which I am very conscious.
The Covid crisis has demonstrated the need and opportunity for radical reform in education, further education and higher education. I ask the Tánaiste to make a world-class apprenticeship platform a key part of the recovery plan post Covid. We need to stop blaming parents as hampering the development of apprenticeships. As Gaeilge, cá bhfuil an fhís chomhpháirteach le haghaidh an phrintísigh? Where is the collective will to provide equal esteem for apprenticeships? We do not have a system where the senior cycle allows people to develop a portfolio leading to apprenticeship, we have no Central Applications Office, CAO, in respect of apprenticeships, no quota from the public service for apprentices and no collective agreements incorporating apprenticeships. We need to inject urgency into the glacial reform of the leaving certificate and to put lead into the pencil of the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science., Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, because without that, we will not deliver this programme.
I thank the Deputy. I know this is an issue that the Minister, Deputy Harris, and Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, are very interested in and committed to. We are in the process of a major overhaul of the apprenticeship system, creating more apprenticeships, different types of apprenticeships and also, from my side, helping to encourage employers to take on more apprentices. We want to increase the number of apprenticeships to 10,000 every year, which would be significant. We need apprentices because the areas in which they are trained, particularly construction, crafts and so on, are essential. We need more younger people taking up careers in those areas and we are going to push for that in the next few years.
I want to raise with the Tánaiste the reconfiguration of services in the children's disability network. I have met a number of parents from Tramore and the outskirts of Waterford city who have been recently informed that their children's services, for example, occupational and speech and language therapies, have been moved from Waterford city to Dungarvan. The Tánaiste knows the geography of County Waterford better than most people here. It is quite a distance to travel from Tramore to Dungarvan. These people are more used to accessing their services in Waterford city. Many of the children are attending special schools in Waterford city. In the current situation, if they have to attend services during school time, they will have to picked up in Waterford city and ferried to Dungarvan and back again, which means they will miss three-hours plus of their normal school day. There may be parents who are reliant on public transport. The Tánaiste will know that public transport from Tramore into the city is fine. Will the Tánaiste work with the Minister of State with responsibility for disabilities, Deputy Rabbitte, to reach a common sense solution for these reconfigurations?
I thank Deputy Ó Cathasaigh for raising this important issue. I am not familiar with all of the details but I can understand how that could be a significant problem. Getting from Waterford city to Dungarvan is not easy if one does not have a car and it takes a lot of time in any event. I will raise the issue with the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and let her know that the Deputy raised it here in the Chamber and I will ask her to engage with him directly on it. I am sure she will want to do that.
I want to raise with the Tánaiste the case of a constituent in Kildare North, who is a young healthcare worker in the HSE and one of the heroes on the front line. She recently discovered a lump and visited her doctor, who told her to have it investigated immediately. When she asked her employer, the HSE, for time off to do so, she was refused. How can it be that somebody who is working on the front line, giving her all in this battle against Covid, cannot be treated in a time of acute need? NPHET is advising people not to delay seeking health services, yet the HSE is treating its employees in this way. What is the plan to address this shameful, shocking treatment?
I thank the Deputy. One of the real improvements in healthcare in Ireland in recent years has been rapid access diagnostics for cancer, particularly when it comes to breast cancer. I do not know the details of the case the Deputy raised but I would expect any employer, particularly a public sector employer, to give someone the necessary time off to attend a cancer investigation appointment. If the Deputy wants to send me the details or to send them to the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, we will look into the case and see what we can do.
I want to ask the Tánaiste about time lost on the community employment, CE, Tús and the back to work enterprise allowance schemes. Many participants have lost time in regard to normal training opportunities and work experience that would be a big part of those schemes because of Covid. While I appreciate announcements have been made by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, in regard to community employment in particular, as current participants have lost time and have not had all the benefits of these schemes due to Covid, will an extension be considered for them?
I will have to take that matter up with the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, and ask her to get back to the Deputy with a more detailed reply. I imagine the intention will be to enable people to catch up on any lost time or lost training that they missed out on due to Covid. At the same time, that has to be balanced with the need to have a churn of people coming on and off schemes in order that other people get those opportunities as well.
For many of us, life will return to some form of normality when restrictions ease. For those with profound mobility issues, however, it will not make much of a difference because their lives were the same before the Covid crisis. They live a life of permanent 5 km, or even tighter, restrictions. Acknowledging that there are only 15 changing places toilets in Ireland, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage made a commitment to Senator Wall in the Seanad in December that a working group would be created to discuss this issue and that this group would meet within a week. Has that proposal been brought to Cabinet and is there any update on it? Major public consultations are taking places on plans for the Phoenix Park and other public places. We need changing places toilets to be rolled out across the country, in existing facilities and in new ones. I would appreciate priority being given to this issue by the Government.
I fully agree with Deputy Duncan Smith. I raised this issue with the Taoiseach in the House three or four months ago with reference to facilities in County Cork and throughout the country. The number of special disability toilets in Northern Ireland is double if not quadruple the number in the Republic. The lack of provision is not fair. There are people travelling hours with a person with a disability and there is nowhere they can take that person. When will we be in a position whereby disability toilets are freely available throughout County Cork?
I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. To my recollection, it has not been brought to Cabinet but I will follow it up with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and ask him to provide the Deputies with a more detailed response.
The general data protection regulation, GDPR, seems to be cropping up with increased frequency in public administration, most recently in the context of the debate on the report of the commission on mother and baby homes. It has also arisen in regard to the processing of medical cards. There appears to be an urgent need for a definition of precisely what falls within the scope of this regulation. Will the Tánaiste ensure that this be considered as a matter of urgency?
We are all grappling with the appropriate use of the GDPR in our work as Deputies and Ministers. I know that people working in public administration and business feel the exact same. The more clarity we can provide for people the better. If there is a specific aspect of the regulation that the Deputy has in mind, perhaps to do with medical cards, and he wants to give me more details later, I will be happy to check it out.
I started out with a long list of Deputies wanting to speak and we have run out of time. There are seven people left. If the Tánaiste is willing, I am prepared to go through them all very quickly but they will not have a minute each. If Deputies are ready to ask their questions as quickly as they can, I will call those who remain on the list. I am asking Deputies just to put their question and no more. Is that agreed? Agreed.
The Irish Cancer Society is asking for car parking fees to be waived for those receiving cancer treatment. I received notice from the Department of Health pointing out that the programme for Government contains a commitment in respect of introducing a cap on the maximum daily charge for patients and visitors at all public hospitals, where possible-----
On the same subject, the programme for Government includes an undertaking to look at putting caps on parking fees in public hospitals for patients, their families and visitors. Will the Government not consider abolishing such charges altogether? People are frustrated and find it very unjust-----
I thank the Deputies. I am certainly sympathetic to the proposal that car parking should be free for cancer patients. Everyone in this House would be sympathetic to that, although it raises the obvious question of what should happen for people receiving treatments for illnesses other than cancer. Why would they have to pay and others would not? There would be an inequity in that which would have to considered. We also need to bear in mind that not all car parks are owned by the hospitals. Some are privately owned and operated and, in some cases, parking charges are there to make sure people do not use the car parks for commuting purposes or to access nearby bus or train stations. All of those issues need to be considered in the round but the Government plan is to bring in a cap on the fees.
National Broadband Ireland is tasked with the roll-out of high-speed fibre broadband to most rural parts of the country. There are people living in townlands in County Tipperary who have been told that it will be two or three years before their areas are even surveyed. They will then be looking at a similar timeframe before the network is rolled out in their areas. I acknowledge that this is a complicated process that will take time. However, surveying these areas can surely be done in a faster timeframe than three years or more. I am calling on the Government to direct National Broadband Ireland to hire more employees to carry out these localised surveys in order that rural areas can look forward to having broadband in a far shorter timeframe.
I thank the Deputy. I met with representatives of National Broadband Ireland last week to raise these issues with them. I know Deputies raise them all the time. We all support the national broadband plan, or at least we all do now, and we all want to see it rolled out as quickly as possible. However, even with the best will and the best intentions, there are technical difficulties. It is a project that will take five to seven years. Approximately 100,000 homes, farms and businesses will be connected every year. We are exploring with National Broadband Ireland and Eir any means possible to speed that up but, as with any big project such as this, it cannot all be done in one year or even two.
The issue I want to raise is in regard to home help services in the north west. Many elderly people receive that service and benefit from it. However, during the Covid period, as we know, people looking for respite in a nursing home cannot get it as they normally would and are applying for community respite. I have one constituent - there are many people in the same situation - who has sought community respite but cannot get it. There has been no effort made by the HSE to recruit additional people to provide that service. This particular person has been allocated ten hours per week but can only be provided with four.
The Deputy has raised an important issue that requires a response. I will have to ask the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Butler, to make contact with the Deputy and give him a response. Unfortunately, I do not have any detail on it.
I want to raise the issue of headstones. I have been contacted by people in Carlow who are looking to have headstones placed on the graves of loved ones but who are experiencing difficulties in so doing. Particularly this year, it is a very sensitive issue. My understanding is that some local authorities are allowing it and others are not. I am just asking for guidance on this matter. No one wants to break the level 5 restrictions but it is important that people who are grieving are allowed to get this work done.
I want to raise the issue of the urban regeneration and development fund. There was disappointment in some towns this week following announcements that were made. I want to emphasise how important it is, in my own constituency, that Tralee and Killarney would receive positive outcomes. There have been multimillion euro applications made by both towns. Our county has been hit the hardest of all counties in Ireland by the Covid crisis. Now more than ever, these towns need help. I urge both the Taoiseach and Tánaiste to ensure they receive positive news when the outcome of the applications are announced later this month.
I will let the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, know of his suggestions and his strong support for the projects being put forward by Tralee and Killarney. As it is often the case that only one project in a county can be funded, I will not ask the Deputy to suggest whether it should be Tralee or Killarney. I am sure both are of equal merit.
I thank the Tánaiste and Deputies for their co-operation. We got through the list.
I have received a note from the Chief Whip's office indicating that the Taoiseach wishes to make a statement to the House.