Thursday, 25 March 2021
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
This morning Ulster Bank was fined almost €38 million for its role in the tracker mortgage scandal, a scandal that affected nearly 6,000 customers of Ulster Bank that we know of. Part of the Central Bank's finding was that Ulster Bank devised and implemented a deliberate strategy not to provide certain customers with their correct tracker mortgage entitlement. That means it devised and implemented a strategy to overcharge customers thousands of euro to which the bank was legally not entitled. In layman's terms, it was theft. It affected thousands of people and 29 people lost their family homes as a result. For those, today's fine is too little, too late.
In 2015, the Central Bank Governor wrote to the then Fine Gael finance Minister, Michael Noonan, pointing out a loophole in the relevant legislation. In the letter he said it effectively allowed individuals to act without responsibility for their actions. It is six years since the Central Bank told the Government it needed to hold individuals and bankers to account because of this loophole. When is the legislation going to be published?
That legislation is being worked on by the Minister for Finance. As the Deputy knows, it cannot apply retrospectively but obviously it can apply to future instances. I do not have an exact date for it but I will ask the Minister for Finance to provide it once we have it.
A man by the name of Seán from east Galway, the constituency of the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, passed away last week. He was a well-known musician and played for numerous Presidents. Seán died from something that was preventable. The reason I am telling this story is because his family wanted me to raise it with the Tánaiste. Seán hardly ever left his house over the past year because he was completely terrified of Covid.
Next Tuesday will see a big event when the Government announces where we are going with Covid. The family's plea is that messaging will change to one of hope, to one where we give people some positivity and that the narrative will change to ensure that people like Seán will know there will be a day when we get out of this and a positive day coming very soon.
I am very sorry to hear about Seán's passing and I extend my condolences to his family as well. I know how difficult the last year or so has been, particularly for people who have been bereaved. Whether it was a consequence of Covid, not being able to grieve in the normal way that we do has been really hard on thousands of families across the country.
The message on Tuesday will be one of hope. I, along with the Government, am hopeful. We have vaccines now and they work. We know they will allow us to live with this virus in the future in a way that we have not been able to in the year gone by.
It will also have to be a message of honesty and realism, however, because we are not there yet. Cases are rising again and we are genuinely concerned about the possibility of a fourth wave before the summer and before we have had time to vaccinate those most at risk. It will be the middle of May before we vaccinate all the over 70s and all those under 70 who have medical conditions. That has to be the priority.
The hospitality sector is one of the hardest hit by the pandemic. We know that reopening will not mean automatic recovery. Uncertainty for employees and business owners is symptomatic of a pandemic. However, we can and should provide certainty where possible - for example, the guaranteed continuation of the 9% VAT rate until 2025, an extension of the rates waiver for at least a year after reopening and an extension of employment wage subsidy scheme post-reopening. Weddings with 25 guests versus weddings with 200 is a clear example of why these are completely essential. There must be proper engagement with the industry and advanced notice of future reopenings. Is the Government considering any of these actions? Many businesses in this sector are on their knees and they cannot forecast or plan with this level of uncertainty.
They are major employers and action is needed if they are to have any chance of recovery.
I know how important the hospitality industry is to the Deputy's constituency. I had the pleasure of spending some of my home holiday last August in Bantry and west Cork and it is a wonderful place for people to visit. As things stand, the employment wage subsidy scheme and the weekly Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, payment will remain in place at least until the end of June and the 9% VAT rate will remain at least until the end of the year. The Deputy is absolutely right that the hospitality sector, along with aviation and the events industry, has been the sector hit worst, first and hardest and will, unfortunately, be the longest hit. Those sectors will need additional support well beyond June and well beyond the point of reopening because they will need to rebuild. These will be decisions for the Government down the line, in June and at budget time, but we are very well disposed to them.
I refer to the roll-out of the vaccine in the European Union and the European vaccine policy programme. At the moment it is playing out like a bad soap opera for countries that want to get access to the vaccine. Other European countries, namely, Hungary, France and Germany, have looked beyond the framework to acquire vaccines from China or Russia. Has the Government explored going outside the framework and looked at the Sputnik vaccine in particular? Has the Government corresponded with the Russian ambassador, who said Russia had availability of its vaccine? Will the Government go beyond the framework to look for other vaccines?
We will explore any avenue to secure more vaccine supply for Ireland. It is a good thing that we are part of the European framework. I remember what it was like in the first wave of the pandemic when countries fought each other for PPE, testing kits, swabs and reagents. It is better that we have collective action here and that all European countries went together and secured the contracts we did. On our own we may have done better but we also may have done much worse. The fact that we have the buying power of the European Union, on balance, is to our advantage. While we are not doing as well as the UK, the US, Israel or the United Arab Emirates in terms of vaccination, Europe is well ahead of the rest of the world in that regard. I have had some direct contact with the Israeli ambassador. I have not had any contact with the Russian ambassador but other members of Government may have. We are willing to consider any vaccine that is approved by the EMA but we are not willing to do what some countries have done and bypass normal procedures to give emergency authorisation to a vaccine on a national basis. We want it to be approved by the EMA.
Two weeks ago I raised the shocking allegations of serious threats to the life and health of a senior prison officer in an Irish prison. I referred to the Naughton report, which confirms the veracity of these allegations, and I questioned the Tánaiste on the lack of implementation of that report. He stated that he did not know anything about it but I have a letter here that was sent to him, the Minister for Justice and the Taoiseach. He received the letter and acknowledged receipt of it but he and his colleagues have done nothing since with regard to this matter. Today I received shocking information from replies to parliamentary questions about the Prison Service. They showed that 48% of Irish Prison Service workers have left the service in the last ten years and that 56 allegations of wrongdoing in respect of the Irish Prison Service have been submitted. There are also 31 assessed protected disclosures. What is the Government doing about this crisis and why is it sitting on its hands?
There is not any legislation promised on this matter but I appreciate that it is an important one. It is a matter for the Minister for Justice and the best thing would be for me to ask her to reply to the Deputy directly on it.
Clonmel has been overlooked. The regional strand of funding under the rural regeneration and development fund, RRDF, has been announced by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. Some €500 million went to Cork and Limerick but Clonmel did not get pingin amháin. We had a lot of work done on this. The strands involved were phase 2 of the Kickham Barracks regeneration, the Clonmel Flights of Discovery tourism proposal, which includes the Bulmers lane project and Suir Island and a general public realm enhancement for the town. Much background work was done by our district administrator Michael Moroney and senior planner Jonathan Flood. All these submissions were assessed, got the green light and got approval but we did not get a penny. We cannot get a Garda station even though we have been raising it for 60 years here in the Dáil. We have planning permission and announcements but we need an explanation as to why our application for funding was unsuccessful. Clonmel serves 35,000 people. It used to be the biggest inland town in Ireland and it is now the second biggest. There are a huge number of people and a huge energy there but we need to get this funding for phase 2 to continue projects and to enhance our town. Above all, we want an explanation from the Minister as to why the applications failed.
It is important to point out that funding was provided to Nenagh in County Tipperary as part of this round for a very good project in that town. The Clonmel project is good. I visited Clonmel not that long ago with Senator Ahearn, before he became a Senator, and had a chance to go to the old Bulmers site and to understand the concept behind the project, which is to bring Limerick Institute of Technology, LIT, into the town and make use of the barracks. As the Deputy rightly says, Clonmel is a historic borough town. It is a wonderful town in many ways and a very large town as well. This is a great project and I am disappointed that it did not get funding in this round, quite frankly.
It would be appropriate for the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to give an explanation to the council and I am sure it will do so. Hopefully the project can be funded in the next round because using the Bulmers assets and the barracks, bringing LIT into the town and building the sports hub would be of huge benefit to Clonmel. I will continue to work with the Deputy and Senator Ahearn on this matter.
The Tánaiste mentioned earlier that the detailed vaccination plan will be announced in the coming weeks, which is welcome. Will An Post postal delivery workers be included or prioritised for vaccination as part of that plan, like other front-line workers?
I am afraid I cannot answer that question as I do not know. This decision will be made on foot of the best scientific and medical advice from the National Immunisation Advisory Committee, NIAC, and that is the best way to make these decisions. The workers who will be prioritised are those who are required by virtue of their work to come into close social contact with other people - essentially, people who cannot social distance. I appreciate that An Post delivery workers have sprung to mind for Deputy Pringle, and they have a case, but the ones who spring to mind for me are those who work in special education. I visited a special school in my constituency a few weeks ago with Senator Currie and I came away with an understanding of how social distancing is pretty much impossible for people who work with those with special needs. For people who work in special education, close contact is much the same as it would be for a healthcare worker and I hope NIAC will give them favourable consideration as well.
Why did the Department of Defence oppose the military service allowance for the 96th cadet class, which was involved in the HSE contact tracing programme? It is only through arbitration and an adjudicator ruling that the cadets were awarded €800, as was strongly endorsed by the general staff of the Defence Forces. These cadets were employed in the same way as fully trained personnel while on these vital Covid duties and the same cadets are some of the lowest paid members of the Defence Forces. What possible justification could there have been to oppose this allowance during a pandemic, when these cadets carried out extraordinary additional duties and their cadetships were suspended?
I do not know for sure. I think I recollect that an issue arose because others who were redeployed into contact tracing from other parts of the public service were not getting an additional allowance. As is so often the case when it comes to public sector pay issues, while a case may be justified on the face of things it triggers a set of knock-on claims which then make it unaffordable. That might be the reason but I might be wrong so I will ask the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, to come back to the Deputy directly on that issue. I wish to record my appreciation, and that of the House, for the role the Defence Forces have played in helping us fight this pandemic, whether in contact tracing or, now, as the liaison officers for mandatory hotel quarantine.
Education is a constitutional and human right. In 2013,15 children entered junior infants class in Cara Junior Catholic School for special education in Cork. They are graduating this year and only seven of them have places in secondary school, so eight children from that class are being discriminated against. It is not just those children that are affected because there are children in other primary schools right across Cork city and county who do not have places from September. Their parents are distraught and are looking for help. I contacted the Department of Education, which has responsibility for special education, and they told me that this was a priority and that it was being looked into.
The Tánaiste has been in government for ten years, these children went into the school eight years ago and the Government has done nothing about it. Will the Tánaiste commit here today to delivering a special school for Cork North-Central for children between four and 18 years of age?
I thank the Deputy. I will certainly raise this issue with the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and will ask her to look into it. She is the Minister of State with responsibility for special education, as the Deputy is aware, and this is an issue that has also been raised by Deputy Colm Burke, by the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and by Senator Buttimer. I cannot make a commitment on the floor of the House but we will certainly have this examined. In my own constituency we had to fight quite hard to secure our first special school which opened this year and it has really helped to change the lives of 30 young people and their families. I can certainly understand the need for more special schools around the country.
I greatly appreciate the opportunity to raise this issue. Next week the Government, on foot of NPHET recommendations, will make some very serious decisions. I do not want to engage in what some people have labelled as perhaps a shopping list of key issues but can we expect that those decisions, when they are made, will be clear and will provide a timeline beyond the next four weeks, something similar, or beyond that? We are very concerned that we do not go into another weekend of speculation and kite-flying from people in the media or in society. Rather, we want to arrive at a point on Tuesday when there is absolute clarity for society, where possible, for the next four weeks and a roadmap for the weeks beyond that.
I will speak on the same issue. Following on the comments of my colleague, Deputy Richmond, people are in many cases at breaking point with Covid-19 fatigue setting in. What will be the process on 5 April by which the Government will look at dealing with the reality when many people will be moving beyond level 5 by way of extending the limit from the 5 km, people being able to attend religious services and being able to click and collect? Will the Tánaiste be able to give clarity on this sooner rather than later?
In the context of a commitment from a health Minister yesterday that he hopes that four in every five adults in Ireland can be vaccinated by the end of June and have at least one dose received based obviously on incoming suppliers, is it now time to begin moving the parameters whereby we establish or lift lockdown to something beyond infection rates or an R number, to reflect the fact that the risk associated with 500 cases, for example, last October and 500 cases right now is significantly different? We need to move to a more nuanced and sophisticated measurement of how exactly we react based on our vaccination rates as much as we are basing it on-----
Given that a continuous and adequate supply of vaccine is fundamental to the success of the fight against Covid-19, is the Tánaiste satisfied that adequate efforts are being made at European level to find alternative and continuous sources of the vaccine to replace those vaccine supplies that have not been fulfilled already?
There is an important set of decisions ahead for the Government in the next couple of days. Only two of the four metrics that we have discussed before are going in the right direction. It is important to be prudent yet and to acknowledge also vaccine progress, with 10% of the people having had the first vaccine dose. As the Government prepares its decisions, I ask the Tánaiste to look at two additional matters. One is the nuance that antigen testing can bring to how we enable people to get back out and to protect themselves at an infectious but asymptomatic stage. A further point that we might look at is when over 70-year-old citizens are fully vaccinated in the summer, can they have access to hospitality at an earlier stage to drive some revenue for hospitality and to provide a bonus for them to be able to get out sooner than might otherwise be the case?
We have an ideal opportunity to give some sort of hope to people next week. The roll-out is really shambolic of the vaccination side. I was speaking to doctors in Clonakilty and in Bantry last week and they were getting less than half of the vaccines that they were promised. We need to look at a county-by-county reopening because counties like Cork have one of the lowest rates. It has had 14 cases of Covid-19, which is 14 too many.
Next week being Holy Week is an opportunity for churches to reopen. Is the Government considering county-by-county reopening from next week, which is what the people are crying out for?
I attended an IBEC meeting this morning. The point was made that as the vaccines are being rolled out and based upon the progress made and milestones reached, we should see reopening of the economic sector to allow businesses to get back on their feet.
In addition to that, I also raise the very important issue of our cancer services. These services need to be urgently re-opened and should be working in tandem with the restrictions. I know that Professor O’Reilly, who is an oncologist, has raised very serious concerns. He states that for the next decade we are going to see a very high rate of deaths among cancer patients if we do not take urgent action. I appeal to the Tánaiste, being from the medical profession, please to advocate for the reopening of cancer services.
I thank the Deputies for their questions. We will give as much clarity and hope as we can on Tuesday. We will also need to be honest as we are not out of the woods yet. I am hopeful about the summer but the next couple of weeks are very worrying. The situation is deteriorating across Europe and appears to be deteriorating here as well. We will give people as much clarity as we can but we have seen on so many occasions that this virus rips up our plans. I do not want to give people assurances for six weeks’ time that we then have to withdraw in three weeks’ time, as that is not fair either.
On the risk profile question, this will change because of the vaccine but only 10% of people have received a shot now and it has not changed the risk profile enough at this stage. We really need to be up around 40% to 50% of people having received one vaccine before one would see that having a meaningful impact on the R number and we are not there yet.
On vaccine supply, I attended the European People’s Party, EPP, summit this morning and I engaged with President von der Leyen on this. She and we are doing everything we can to speed up supply in the second quarter of this year. It will speed up during this quarter and she is confident that we will have between 300 million to 360 million doses in the European Union in the second quarter of this year, that is in April, May and June. That is over 3 million doses, more than 1 million a month, coming to Ireland in that second quarter.
On testing, as I mentioned earlier, we are now extending PCR testing on demand to five parts of the country where there is a high incidence in Dublin and in Tullamore. A person does not need to go to a GP and can just drop in for a test. We are also going to see greater use of antigen testing, particularly in outbreaks and in workplaces.
We are not ready yet to treat different counties differently. Unfortunately, there is no county in Ireland at the moment where the incidence is low enough. Even where it is low it is five, ten, or twenty times what it was last summer.
Finally, on cancer services, as it is Daffodil Day tomorrow I want to thank Deputy Nolan for raising the issue of cancer services. I fully agree with her that we will do everything we can to get as many cancer services back up and running as soon as is possible. I fear secondary deaths as a consequence of this pandemic, that is people not dying of Covid-19 but from other conditions because they did not get the care that they needed during the pandemic.
Can I raise a point of order, please, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle? I apologise for interrupting. There may have been an error yesterday, in that the Leas-Cheann Comhairle mistook Deputy Richmond for myself in the queue.
I call Deputy Andrews and will come back to Deputy McAuliffe, who was on the list. Incidentally, this is not a point of order but a point of correction, which I fully accept. I call Deputy Andrews.
In 2017, a ruling was made by the European Committee of Social Rights that Ireland had breached Article 16 of the revised European Social Charter. The committee went on to state that the Irish State had failed to ensure the right to housing of an adequate standard for a not insignificant number of families. We are four years on from this ruling and nothing has changed for people paying rent to live in houses and flats throughout the inner city. The conditions people are living in are truly shocking in many cases. Tenants describe living there as a constant battle against mould and damp as well as recent rat infestations. Why has the State not acted to amend its failings? Is the State content to have its citizens living in such deplorable conditions?
I acknowledge the fact that much of our local authority housing and social housing is substandard in my constituency and in that of the Deputy. It would be only fair for the Deputy to acknowledge also the huge investment that has gone into improving, upgrading and renewing social housing and local authority housing in my constituency and his. Some major redevelopment is under way throughout the country to improve and bring social housing up to an acceptable standard. This will continue. At the same time, we also need to build a lot more social and affordable housing and private housing. There are capacity constraints. There are only so many construction workers. Construction is paused because of the pandemic. While we would love to do all of these things quickly and at the same time, there are limitations to what we can do but we are doing as much as we can.
I would have Deputy Richmond out canvassing for me but I do not think we would be compatible.
The programme for Government refers to investing in our communities. We have seen how community has been such an important part of the response to the Covid pandemic. One group of workers have led our communities for many years and they are community employment, CE, supervisors. The Government has done much work in recent months to try to find a solution to the issue of community employment supervisors' pensions and I ask that everything that can be done is done in the coming weeks to make sure this work results in a delivery.
I echo my colleague's call for support for workers and managers throughout the country. We have totally depended on them for a long number of years during which time they have done Trojan work. They deserve to be treated with respect when it comes to their pensions, like every other public servant in the country. Their input and contribution to society has been immense. For this reason, I support my colleague's call.
I want to be associated with this. All of us know the work done by CE supervisors. It is absolutely marvellous. They deserve to get their proper pay and increments. I know the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, is working on this. I ask the Tánaiste to speak to him. This is very serious because the CE supervisors need it to be sorted.
The Leas-Cheann Comhairle should not be embarrassed at all at mistaking Deputy McAuliffe for Deputy Richmond. I am regularly mistaken for the Taoiseach and we look nothing alike. I can see no reason anyone could not make an honest mistake about the two Deputies.
On the question at hand, this is a long-standing issue. It has been a problem for more than a decade. Five Governments have tried to deal with it. There is a fundamental difficulty in solving the problem. CE supervisors appear to be seeking a public sector pension but they are not public servants. They were never hired as public servants and did not make a contribution to the public service pension scheme throughout their working lives, in the way every other public servant does. If we give a public sector pension to somebody who is not a public servant and who did not make public sector pension contributions, the knock-on demands would be incalculable. This is the problem. We need to be honest with ourselves about this and to be honest with them about it. Perhaps we can do something prospective for future pensions. Perhaps we could do something in terms of a retrospective recognition gratuity. This is the space in which there might be a solution and not in conceding something that was not true.
The plans have been agreed for the roll-out of a primary health care centre in Clondalkin, which is to provide speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, and a dental clinic among other services. These are much-needed services for which the people of north Clondalkin have been crying out. In response to a parliamentary question I tabled I was told there is a delay in transferring the land from the Department of Education to the Department of Health. This delay has been going on since 2015. It seems that two arms of the State are delaying these much-needed services for the people of north Clondalkin. Will the Tánaiste speak to both Departments and see whether he can get this matter progressed?
I thank the Deputy. Deputy Higgins was also on to me about this issue recently. I do not know what the cause for the delay is but the community needs a primary care centre soon so I will take it up with the relevant Ministers and come back to the Deputy with some progress, hopefully soon.
The Government has an ambitious retrofitting plan but I am concerned that it is a case of building castles in the sky. I could list many cases of families, renters and homeowners, who are pensioners in some cases, who live in cold homes that are D-rated or worse. The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland was with them a decade ago so they will not see it again, such are the rules. There is no funding for windows or doors. These people are not in a position to avail of other subsidies because they do not have disposable income but they are promised that they might be one of 500,000 deep retrofits by 2030. I welcome the ambition but I firmly believe that we need a plan in place to support those people who are most in need between now and 2030. My concern is that the ambition is way out in the future and in the interim people will live in homes that are D-rated and worse, with no real proposition of improving windows, doors or attic insulation. It is a matter of prioritisation for those most in need.
I welcome the publication of the climate Bill, which addresses these issues but work has to start now in a vigorous way. The 500,000 homes to be done by 2030, to which Deputy O'Rourke referred, would represent 3 million tonnes, which equates to just one year of the target we hope to achieve each year for ten years. I hope there is broad consultation on how we will deliver this target. and this needs to start urgently. I hope we see the end of people calling for a just transition and then refusing to support measures such as carbon pricing, which are essential if we are to achieve this ambitious target.
I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue. We published the climate Bill earlier this week and it commits us to a 51% reduction in emissions between now and the end of 2030. In the main, the emissions come from transport, agriculture and buildings, including our homes, so retrofit will have to be a huge part of the way forward. There will be public consultation on this. We will need the proceeds from the carbon tax to help co-fund it. The two are inextricably linked. It is very ambitious because we will run into constraints. We need to build a lot of new public infrastructure in this country over the coming decade. We need to build a lot of housing and we also need to retrofit a lot of old housing. We will run into constraints regarding construction workers and this is why we are ramping up apprenticeships and doing more to encourage people to go into them.