Thursday, 22 April 2021
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
Last month, the Dáil unanimously supported an Teachta Aengus Ó Snodaigh's legislation to preserve and revitalise Moore Street in Dublin as a cultural quarter. At its meeting earlier this month, Dublin City Council voted unanimously to make Moore Street an architectural conservation area, a decision which imposes strict planning controls on the demolition of buildings in the area. As a result of both of these votes, no planning application by the developer should be allowed to proceed that undermines the clear wishes of elected representatives in this House or indeed in the council. This area has been described by the National Museum as the most important historic site in modern Irish history.
Does the Tánaiste agree that the processing of any application by the developer at this time would represent direct interference with the legislative process and render the votes of this Dáil and the city council meaningless? Will he ensure the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage makes it clear to any State agencies that may be required to provide letters of consent that it is the Government's view that issuing such letters in respect of such a planning application would be contrary to proper planning and a betrayal of the public interest in this matter?
I am afraid I may have to come back to the Deputy with a further reply on this but my understanding is that if a planning application is lodged, it is lodged under the existing law, not under a proposed law or a future law. I do not know much about proposals to revise this development. I received a presentation some years ago about what was planned for the area. I know we purchased four buildings on Moore Street which constitute a national monument. They are in Government ownership, so it is for the Government to decide how that is developed. It is a different matter for the wider area.
It is clear that one of the impacts of Covid will be changes in work practices that will last long after the pandemic has ended. This is something I have campaigned on in recent years, representing a commuter area and county in Fingal. The Government has launched a remote working strategy and it is clear working from home and working from local community hubs will be the norm. However, we will need policies that support workers in that. One relates to the taxsaver annual ticket. The cost of an annual taxsaver ticket could be €1,450 deducted directly from wages, but if people are only working two or three days a week, either by choice or by design with their employers, will the Government consider the provision of a part-time taxsaver season ticket for commuters? This would be a significant help to their overall income and I ask the Government to consider it strongly.
That is a good idea so I will certainly speak to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, about it to see if we can do something or examine that. I would point out that part-time working is not new. We have had people who work for two or three days a week in the city centre for as long as I can remember and probably since the beginning of time. Part-time working is not something new so perhaps there is a good reason this was not done before, but I agree that in the post-pandemic world of work, it will be much more common for people to work from home for a day or two and maybe only go into headquarters for a day or two a month. We need to find a way to assist them with the cost of public transport. We will have to look at it in the round but, to cut a long story short, it is a good idea we should explore.
There are reports this week of 435 apartments in Ashtown in Dublin 15 being sold off to a foreign investment company based in Germany several years before these apartments will be completed. According to the Construction Industry Federation, in 2019, 95% of apartments were sold to institutional investors, leaving only 5% for everyone else. Individuals and couples simply cannot compete with these multimillion euro investment funds. An entire generation is being locked out of home ownership. Rents for apartments in Dublin are higher than in any other city in the European Union. In Germany, residential investment funds were banned from buying up apartments and homes. Will the Government bring forward legislation to ban the buying up of homes by real estate investment trusts, REITs, and investment funds?
I do not believe there are any plans for legislation in that regard but I will check with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. We need to take a more rounded approach to housing in general. Rather than banning different types of housing or housing investment, we need all sorts of housing and lots more of it, whether it is social housing for people on the housing list, cost rental or private homes for people to buy. We need more housing of all types in Ireland. The solution is not to try to ban types of housing or housing investment. While it might be the case there are too many of these investment funds and they are too active in the market in Dublin, it does not mean there is no place for them at all. It is not that these apartments are empty. I know people who live in apartments managed by companies such as Kennedy Wilson in places like Islandbridge. They do a good job, people rent there, and they have a home as a result of that. I do not think we should be so ideological and absolute about this. This should never be about banning types of housing or housing investment. We need lots more housing of all types and we need both public and private investment.
On the same issue, will this rounded approach to housing extend to trying to do something to stop people from being unjustly evicted? Our treatment of the homeless reached a new low this week where the homeless, in homeless accommodation, are now being evicted. At the Travelodge in Ballymun, families, including a woman with a tumour, and people with kids in school in Ballymun, were told on Tuesday they had to be out on Thursday from homeless accommodation. We now evict the homeless. They have been told they have to go off to Coolock or Clontarf, and if they do not accept that, they will end up in a dive, to quote one official. Will the Tánaiste look into doing something about that? I have asked repeatedly if the Tánaiste will do something about the tenants of St. Helen's Court in Dún Laoghaire, eight of whom stand to be evicted tomorrow by a vulture fund because the Government has failed to close the loopholes that allow vulture funds, purely for money, to evict good tenants who pay their rent and put them onto the street and who will now be knocking on the homeless service's door in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown.
I appreciate these are important issues and the Deputy is entitled to raise them, but where they refer to specific developments and specific individuals, it is difficult for me to reply without knowing any or much of the information. If the Deputy wants to correspond with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, that would be the best way to bring the matter forward.
In 2016, the Friends of Wexford General Hospital group was told that it would be given funding for an essential MRI scanner for the hospital if the group was able to raise €250,000. The group appealed to the people of Wexford and within 18 months that €250,000 was raised by the people of Wexford. It was by 2018, some 18 months later. Some weeks ago, South East Radio interviewed Paul Reid, chief executive officer of the HSE and he was asked when Wexford General Hospital would see the promised MRI scanner in place. He replied that there was no mention nor provision made for an MRI scanner in the HSE's capital fund. Can the Tánaiste confirm to the people of Wexford that the previous Government, in which he was the Taoiseach at the time, and this Government have not hoodwinked the people of Wexford and that they do not think they can just fob them off? Can the Tánaiste confirm when the MRI scanner will be in place and a timeline for that?
I am a friend of Wexford General Hospital. My first job as a surgical intern was in the hospital back in 2003. I have fond memories of working there. I got a great education there but I also met some really great people. Increasingly, MR is becoming a standard investigation method and it would make sense to have that facility available in every acute general hospital. I do not know what specific commitments were made by this Government and the previous one regarding Wexford General Hospital, so I will have to check. I appreciate, however, that the Deputy is raising a very important issue and I will follow up with the HSE and get her a more detailed response.
I return to the issue of a bypass for Tipperary town. Two sets of consultants are looking at the road from Limerick to Waterford. Tipperary town must be bypassed and we had plans before to do that. Why has a 6 km wide passage of land now been sterilised from Limerick to Tipperary town, and including towns such as Bansha, Cahir, Clonmel, Carrick-on-Suir, Piltown and on to Waterford? People want to build houses in those areas and they cannot apply for planning because of that 6 km area. These studies were done before and major plans were drawn up for the M24. Those plans are there, so why do we have to sterilise a wider area this time?
I think this is only giving money to consultants. Surely, we can look at locations case-by-case within that corridor. That would allow those people who are lucky to have a site and a mortgage and who are able to build a home to apply for planning permission. It would help to solve or at least lessen the housing crisis. It is bizarre that a 6 km wide tract of land would be sterilised, because the dogs in the street know this is not going to be used. It is going to be a corridor similar to the one before. It is a time consuming and delaying process.
On Monday of this week, Inner City Helping Homeless, ICHH, published its Empowerment to Rights report. Some 98% of homeless people have never engaged in an official exit plan for homelessness; 87% said that the situation often leads to feelings of anxiety and depression; 40% of respondents experienced sexual assault while homeless; 84% of respondents said they were not comfortable making a complaint within the homeless services; and 65% said that they have been finding it difficult to manage their hygiene during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The press release from ICHH stated that the most frequent words used in the survey to describe the homeless experience included "shame", "dirty", "alone", "unseen", "inhuman", "lost", "depressed", "unwanted" and "scared". Does the Tánaiste think that is acceptable that that would be the outcome of the survey? What is the Government going to do about it?
I am afraid I am not familiar with the survey, so I probably should not comment on it. I will, however, take a look at it. The Government is investing more in homeless services than has ever been the case previously. While there are still far too many people homeless in our country, it is down considerably on where we were a year or two ago. We must ensure we keep that trajectory going in the right direction. That involves, in particular, investment in the Housing First programme, of which I am a big fan and which I think has been very successful. We need more tenancies under that programme.
As the Deputy knows, however, homelessness is a complex problem. It is not just about housing, although it is very much about housing; it also involves mental health, addiction services and many different things that we have to get right. The level of investment now going into all those areas is unprecedented, however, and we are seeing a result in the form of lower levels of homelessness than we experienced a few years ago. It is absolutely the case though that it is not enough and more needs to be done.
Construction is starting on 1,000 new homes in Clondalkin in my constituency, of which 30% will be social homes. Yesterday, the leader of Sinn Féin came into this House and demanded more social homes. Yet, Sinn Féin voted against these 300 social homes in Clondalkin. Why was that? It was because of the funding model. I do not think the funding model matters a great deal to people on the council housing list or to young couples looking to get a foot on the property ladder. Can the Tánaiste confirm that this Government is committed to delivering homes for people, rather than and despite the Sinn Féin model of delay, delay and delay?
I concur with the Deputy's remarks. It is very much my view that if we are going to solve the housing crisis, make homes more available to more people and reduce the cost of housing, well then a big part of doing that, which is probably the main part, has to be more supply. We need to be building about 35,000 homes a year in Ireland. We are not doing that and the pandemic has not helped. However, we need to do that and we are only going to do it if we build housing of all sorts, including social, cost rental, public and private and one-off housing.
Any policy which states we should ban one type of housing or restrict investment in a different type of housing will result in less housing and that will make the situation worse. When I hear the Opposition speaking about housing, it seems to be a case of not here, not there, not anywhere, not that type, not this funding model, indeed, almost any excuse that can be come up with to oppose housing. It does make me wonder whether the Opposition, or elements of the Opposition, actually want the housing crisis to end.
The outdoor dining enhancement scheme provides funding for improvements to outdoor dining facilities for gastro pubs or pubs providing food. Will the Tánaiste consider extending this scheme to wet pubs as well? I refer to pubs exclusively selling just drink to ensure they can open and have outside facilities. Many owners of such facilities have been in contact with me seeking to have this grant available to them so they could provide facilities outdoors during the summer months. Hopefully, if things open up and if the vaccination programme continues to roll out at pace, they can open as well. I would like to ensure the outdoor dining enhancement scheme open to bars and pubs that serve food is also available to bars and pubs that only sell drink.
As the Deputy knows, all the evidence suggests that outdoor dining is much safer than indoor. The same applies to drinking outdoors being safer than drinking indoors. That is why the Government established a scheme to help restaurants and gastro pubs make better use of their outdoor areas. I understand that so-called "wet pubs", and I hope we abolish that term soon, cannot avail of this scheme. Deputy Michael Moynihan has raised this today and Deputy Phelan also raised it earlier this week.
I will endeavour to see if it can be changed. I will have to talk to the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, to see if that can be changed. There may be good reasons for excluding those pubs that I am not aware of. On the face of it, however, it certainly seems like common sense that this scheme should also be open to pubs that do not serve food. I reiterate that I will take this up with the Minister and I will respond to the Deputy as soon as I can.
I have changed my question on the basis of what Deputy Higgins has just said regarding public land sold to a private developer. The Sinn Féin model is to ensure we get the best bang for our buck on public land for public homes, social and affordable. Therefore, I ask the Tánaiste to comment on Clonburris strategic development zone, SDZ, which has 8,500 homes planned for it. Deputy Higgins, along with the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA and other developers, appealed this decision to An Bord Pleanála, which delayed the process of the building approximately 8,500 homes in the middle of a housing crisis by more than a year. NAMA, the developers and Fine Gael are like an unholy Trinity. Does the Tánaiste think that a delay concerning 8,500 public homes in the middle of a public housing emergency is Fine Gael policy?
There is no official Fine Gael policy regarding the Clonburris SDZ. I am sure, however, that Deputies and councillors act in the best interests of their constituents in any observations they may make to An Bord Pleanála.
As the Tánaiste will be aware, cabin crew and many other workers have been on short-time work support in addition to reduced wages, which have been cut by as much as 40%. Some of these workers have now had that payment stopped. Others have been told by social welfare that they need to take a further substantial loss in earnings before they will be eligible for any other support. One lady was told that she had not taken a big enough pay cut by her employer.
These workers are not off work by choice. They are off work because of a global pandemic. If they could, they would happily go back to work in the morning, but they cannot. They cannot because of circumstances entirely outside of their control. However, now they also cannot keep up with food bills, rent and mortgage payments, light and heat bills. Will the Government urgently review this scheme with a view to suspending the rules around qualification to allow workers to retain that supplementary income?
I appreciate how difficult the past year has been for people working in the aviation sector. I represent Dublin West, a constituency where many people work in Dublin Airport and for airlines. While they were able to get by for a few weeks or months, it has become much more difficult because their income has been hit so hard for more than a year. A lot of financial support is being given to the airlines. They are major beneficiaries of the wage subsidy scheme. Grants are also being awarded to the airports.
For 13 months, SouthDoc in Blackpool has been closed. The people of Cork North-Central need this vital out-of-hours GP service. I ask the Tánaiste to commit to investigating why SouthDoc is receiving €7.29 million from the State to provide a service that it is not providing to the people of Cork North-Central. It would not happen in the constituencies of the Tánaiste or the Taoiseach, so why it is happening in my constituency and to the constituents that I represent? We do not want a part-time service or half a service. We want SouthDoc in Blackpool to be reopened with a full service, because that is what the people deserve. That is what this Government is paying for. Will the Tánaiste and the Government to reopening SouthDoc in Blackpool immediately with a full service?
I will have to check with the HSE about the situation in respect of SouthDoc in Blackpool. I do not want to give the Deputy an answer now, off the cuff, without knowing the facts. I will check with the HSE and revert to the Deputy.
The National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, plays a very important role in addressing public waiting lists. That is more important now than ever. It is also crucial that acute hospitals in the public system co-operate with the NTPF as they go about their business, in the interest of patient safety. My information suggests that University Hospital Kerry has not been co-operating with the NTPF recently, resulting in significant delays for patients who are on waiting lists for scope procedures. How is this happening? Can he assure me that those patients will get the scope procedures that they need done? They are important diagnostic procedures. How can we ensure that this does not happen again? I ask for an explanation as to why this happened in the first place.
The NTPF has had a considerable increase in its budget. I believe its budget is now well over €100 million a year. It is tasked with buying healthcare and health services for patients, from both private and public hospitals, using additional capacity where it is available. I strongly encourage any public hospital and also consultants to make use of this budget and service. If a person is waiting for a scan, scope or investigation, the NTPF should be used because it means that he or she will get the test, appointment, investigation or operation her or she needs much sooner.
I do not know the details in respect of University Hospital Kerry. However, it would be a shame if that resource was not being used for the benefit of the people of Kerry, because that is what the money is for.
In April 2016, in a parliamentary question to the Tánaiste, who was then Minister for Health, a proposed primary care centre for Tullow in County Carlow was queried. In the reply and on record, he stated: "The HSE proposes to deliver the primary care centre for the Tullow, Rathvilly and Hacketstown area using the direct/own-build mechanism." Therefore, in 2016. it was stated that the centre would be delivered. In a HSE reply on the matter at the time, it stated that its capital plan would fund the centre.
Five years have passed since then. I have been in contact with the Tánaiste, his office, the Minister for Health and the HSE. The executive told me that it has identified a site in Tullow that will serve as a primary care centre and will serve the local communities in Hacketstown and Rathvilly. This issue has been ongoing for five years. My understanding is that delivery of the centre is to commence this year. I ask the Tánaiste to deliver on the commitment that was given in 2016 by him as Minister for Health for the people of Carlow, Rathvilly and Hacketstown.
I thank the Deputy and appreciate that she has raised this issue previously. I know that it is a priority for her. I am glad to hear that a site has now been identified in Tullow for the new primary care centre. When such centres are built around the country, and there are two or three in my constituency, they really do enhance primary care services, so the more we have, the better. As the Deputy will be aware, many construction projects are delayed as a consequence of the pandemic and, therefore, I cannot say that it will start this year, but it should be this Government, comprising our parties, that makes it happen. I will take a personal interest in the issue and try to get a timeline that we can both stand over.
Some 66 days ago, the National Ambulance Service, NAS, started to vaccinate an estimated 2,700 housebound people over the age of 70. The plan was to have all of the first doses administered by last Sunday week, namely, 11 April 2021. I am being contacted by people in their 80s and 90s who are still waiting to receive their first appointment from the NAS.
To be quite honest, when trying to find information, the HSE locally and regionally does not know what is going on. It would be easier to find out the Third Secret of Fatima. I raised the issue a month ago with the Taoiseach in the House. He committed to getting the relevant information and furnishing me with it. He does not seem to have received information from the HSE either. When will those who are to be vaccinated at home receive their appointments?
This issue has come up a lot in the past week. Indeed, it was discussed at my party's parliamentary party meeting last night. The latest update I received is that approximately 1,000 housebound people are still waiting to receive their vaccine. Generally, older people will receive the AstraZeneca vaccine in most cases because it is the easiest one to transport. That work is being done by the NAS. It is taking a bit of time. I understand how frustrated that people must be, not even knowing the date of their vaccination. They are worried that will be forgotten entirely. However, they will not be forgotten and they will be vaccinated.
I have asked for this issue to be put on the agenda for the meeting of the Cabinet sub-committee on Covid-19 next week. If it is the case that the NAS is being asked to do too much, and it is being asked to do a lot, whether it is running pop-up testing centres or administering vaccines in addition to its normal work as an ambulance service, perhaps we need to find an alternative. Could we, for example, ask local GPs to do it in the form of a house call, and remunerate them for doing so? Could we ask pharmacists to do it? Perhaps if the process is taking too long, we need to look at an alternative model to assist the NAS so that it is not asked to do it all on its own.
In the past week, €70 million in rural regeneration funding has been announced. Rural regeneration funds are a lifeline for rural communities throughout our country. I fully congratulate any town or village that has been successful in getting funds.
The Tánaiste launched this scheme in 2018. Can he explain why, in 2019, 2020 and 2021, when both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have headed the Government, Cork South-West got zero funds, even though it had shovel-ready projects?
One is the Schull Harbour development project, which would have created up to 50 jobs in the Beara Peninsula. Another is the Dursey cable car project in Castletownbere, which would bring massive tourism to the peninsula and to west Cork. The third project in west Cork for which funding was refused involved doing up the surrounds of Bandon town, which has been decimated by flooding and sewerage works.
The rural regeneration and development fund is, in my view, a slush fund for towns and villages in constituencies that have Ministers in government. Can the Tánaiste answer why Cork South-West, where there are shovel-ready projects, continues to be overlooked for rural regeneration while other towns and villages, which do not have projects that are shovel-ready, get funding?
As I understand it, the applications are received by the Department of Rural and Community Development, which has a scoring system. It is against this scoring system that projects are assessed and a decision is made on which ones to fund. I cannot answer as to why no projects in the Deputy's constituency have been funded. There must be a reason and those who have put forward those projects and are promoting them are entitled to know why they did not receive funding. I certainly will speak to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, about this and ask that she create a system whereby, at least, people who do not get funding understand why and can perhaps apply again and get funding the next time. That is what we do with sports capital funding. Sometime people do not get funding one year but they might get it the next year or the year after. That is probably the best approach in this case too.
Last week, we had great news in Cork about the opening of a special education school in Carrigaline. I spoke to other local political representatives about it this morning. They like to play the north side versus south side dichotomy on many different issues. That needs to be called out for the political gimmickry that it is. I welcome the provision of the new school in Carrigaline to cater for 23 families who faced having no school place for their children this coming September.
The programme for Government states that we need to "ensure that each child with a special educational need has an appropriate school place, in line with their constitutional right". Unfortunately, we know that is not happening. Since the announcement last week regarding the school in Cork, I have been contacted by a number of people in different counties who are facing the prospect of having no special education place for their child in next year's enrolment. Can the Tánaiste give some reassurance to parents in that situation in terms of what they can expect for next September?
I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. I am afraid I do not have an update to give him, but I know he would not raise it on the floor of the Chamber unless it was something of real importance to him and his constituents. I will ask the line Minister to prepare a reply for him and I hope it will be satisfactory. I know how much parents worry when they cannot get a place in a school for their child, but the situation is almost always resolved by September. There is a long way to go until then but we will try to get it fixed as soon as we can.
The Tánaiste, as a former Minister for Health, will be aware that, in County Donegal, we have iCARE on the Inishowen Peninsula and Bluestack Special Needs Foundation in south Donegal. For the past 20 years, both organisations have provided a vital service to children with disabilities and their families in north and south Donegal. They did so without State funding for a long time but, in recent years, €36,000 has gone to each organisation. However, it is only a fraction of what they need. The Minister of State with responsibility for disability provision, Deputy Rabbitte, has given a commitment that they will receive the funding they require, but that was months ago. I ask the Tánaiste to comment on this matter and raise it with his colleague, the Minister of State.
I am not familiar with the particular services the Deputy mentioned but I appreciate the importance of the issue. The fact he is raising it today is evidence of that. He mentioned that the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, has made a commitment in regard to funding. I am sure any such commitment will be honoured. I will be seeing her in the next couple of days and will mention that this issue was raised in the House and ask her to get back to the Deputy directly about it.