Thursday, 29 April 2021
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
We in Sinn Féin have been constantly raising with the Tánaiste and the Government the issue of sky-high, extortionate rents being paid by workers and families. The average rent in Dublin is now €1,745 a month, while the average across the State is in excess of €1,200. These rents are absolutely eye-watering, as is the €1 billion the State will pay to private landlords this year. Renters are paying nearly every cent they have just to keep a roof over their heads. They are effectively locked out of home ownership. How on earth can anybody save for a deposit when they have to pay €1,745 out of their wages every month? It is nothing but a vicious cycle.
Incredibly, the Government still refuses to intervene to cut rents and to prevent further increases. It needs to do the right thing. It needs to cut rents by putting one month's rent back into the pockets of renters through a tax refund and to legislate urgently to stop further rent hikes for the next three years. Will it do that?
Rents are too high in Ireland and in Dublin especially. I do not think anyone would dispute that statement. We have brought in rent controls to limit the extent to which rents can be increased, through the rent pressure zones. The problem of rents being too high is not going to be solved by tax credits or rent controls, which people can get around through subletting and do in other cities very regularly. It can be dealt with only by supply. We need much more social housing, which will free up properties for people to rent. We also need more cost rental, more private builds and more housing of all sorts. That is why I appeal, in particular, to Sinn Féin and the parties of the left to stop opposing new housing in this city and throughout Ireland-----
I raised with the Taoiseach yesterday the issue of access to maternity services for the partners of those giving birth. The Tánaiste might confirm whether we will be getting news on this today because I have been raising the issue in the House for seven months.
Another issue I have been raising here for seven months - we were sitting in Leinster House when I first raised it, in October - is that of antigen testing. It is connected with access to maternity services because, for the reopening of businesses and services the Government is hoping to announce later, antigen testing has to have a role. Is the Government going to follow the UK's lead, where seven free antigen tests are being given to everyone? As regards reopening businesses and society, antigen testing has a very significant role to play. We have had promises in the past and I am sick and tired of raising it here.
I would appreciate a positive response to both issues.
The matter of visits to maternity hospitals is under consideration, although I do not know whether there will be an announcement on it today. A strong case is being made for partners to be able to attend antenatal appointments and that is currently under consideration. The change in vaccine guidance is helpful. The national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, has now advised that pregnant women should receive the vaccine. It will be made available to them and I think that will help the situation.
On antigen testing, there are no plans at the moment to provide free tests to members of the public but antigen testing is now being used much more frequently throughout the country. It was used to test everyone recently at Intel following the outbreak there and will be used more extensively in schools, colleges and workplaces. I expect that the revised protocol on safe working, which my Department is developing in consultation with unions and employers, will have a specific section on antigen testing in workplaces.
We have heard time and again that nobody is safe until everybody is safe, in the context of vaccine justice and equity. Tomorrow, the World Trade Organization, WTO, meets to discuss the potential waiver of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, TRIPS. The Tánaiste is our Minister with responsibility for trade. I asked the Taoiseach this question at several points yesterday and did not get an answer. What is the Government's position on the TRIPS waiver?
One thing we all need to acknowledge, when it comes to the miracle that is the development of these vaccines, is that they were developed by private enterprise and with the help of Government funding-----
-----and with the private and public sectors working together and we need to acknowledge that. Were it not for private enterprise, it is possible these vaccines would not have been developed.
As it happens, none of the vaccines are made in Ireland and the intellectual property does not sit in Ireland, so our position on that has to be seen in that context. There are discussions on a waiver request. They will continue at the TRIPS council meeting tomorrow but I am informed that no decision will be made at the meeting and discussions will be ongoing for some time. The EU is open to trying to reach an agreement with all members of the WTO on how to achieve the shared goal of providing timely and secure access to safe and affordable vaccines and medicines for all. We are welcoming the proposal of the WTO Director-General, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who is exploring a third way to expand access to vaccines through a licensing system.
Five hundred ESB network technicians are on strike today. They are striking over plans to outsource their jobs to private contractors and are making a stand against creeping privatisation. The company refuses to recognise their union, the Independent Workers Union, or to meet it at the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, to try to sort out the differences. Instead, it is threatening to take legal action against the union. To be clear, this is the union of choice for nearly half of the workforce. The company's stance is tantamount to an attempt at union-busting.
Before the dispute escalates next Tuesday and Wednesday, will the Tánaiste call on the ESB to step back from the brink by withdrawing the threat of legal action and agreeing to talk to the chosen representatives of these workers?
Network technicians at ESB Networks who are members of the Independent Workers Union are engaged in industrial action, including work-to-rule and work stoppages. Industrial relations within ESB Networks are a matter for the company, and while any industrial action is regrettable, the impact of this particular action is expected to be limited. The action has been taken by network technicians at ESB Networks who are members of the Independent Workers Union. This union is not affiliated to either the ESB group of unions or the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, and workers who are members of those unions are not involved in the action.
As we progress our vaccine roll-out and move towards the reopening of society, we must avail of every option to get business and industry fully operational as safely as possible. I have consistently raised with the Tánaiste the urgent necessity to utilise rapid antigen testing. We now also have available new technology, namely, a rapid PCR test that gives an accurate result within one hour. I do not understand the reluctance to follow the worldwide example of using rapid testing to detect Covid. Professor Mark Ferguson, who chaired the Government's rapid testing group, outlined that tests are easy to perform and generate rapid results. They detect both symptomatic and asymptomatic carriers. They can provide a means for the construction industry, hospitality and retail to move forward towards a faster and sustainable reopening. Why have the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, and the HSE dithered on this issue? What is the Government's current stance on introducing rapid testing in both the public and private sectors?
I am not familiar with the rapid one-hour PCR test but I will certainly check it out and follow up on it. It is not a secret that there are differences of opinion with regard to lateral flow rapid antigen testing and rapid antigen testing in general. In the main, public health doctors are not enthusiastic about it but scientists generally are. That has been an issue all along. The report published by Professor Ferguson, the chief scientific adviser, has been endorsed by Government. We are now seeing a lot of antigen testing in many workplaces around Ireland and in outbreak scenarios. It is also being piloted in schools and colleges. We will see more of that in the coming months. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, is working on a plan to get our college campuses back open in September and October. The students and the staff will be vaccinated by then and antigen testing may help to enable them to have a more normal on-campus experience in September and October, which is what we all want. My Department is taking the lead in respect of antigen testing in the workplace. We are currently updating the workplace safety protocols relating to Covid. These will include a section on antigen testing.
There is a significant issue with regard to theory tests, driving lessons and driving tests being unavailable. This is causing large backlogs in many sectors of industry. This is very important for young people who wish to train as paramedics and nurses and who want to drive to college. They want to get their lessons, get on the road and play their part in the recovery of our economy. Something has to be done because the backlog and is enormous and the delays relating to it are lengthy. I salute the driving instructors but people cannot get appointments for theory tests or driving tests. We must deal with this. There is a massive backlog and a great deal of frustration. People need to get driving in order to support the economy and their families. Will the Tánaiste please do something with regard to lifting restrictions in this area in order to deal with this situation?
To correct the record, the Tánaiste stated that no group had opposed any of the draconian measures the Government has brought through. The Rural Independent Group and I brought forward a motion which opposed some of these measures. Will the Tánaiste correct the record?
I am happy to correct the record in that regard. What I meant to say was that the laws in question were passed by this Oireachtas. I did not suggest that everybody voted for them. I understand that in only one case was an attempt made to rescind a statutory instrument. That attempt was defeated in a democratic vote of this House.
On the issue the Deputy raised, I concur with him. Young people particularly those in rural Ireland but also those in urban areas, need to get on the road. There are particular issues with regard to driving lessons and driving tests that we are trying to sort out. We are also looking at the possibility of doing theory tests online. That is being worked on at the moment and I hope to have some positive news in that regard if not today, then in the next few days.
I congratulate the Minister, Deputy McEntee, and her husband on the birth of their baby boy. I wish them all the best.
This afternoon, there is to be a briefing by the Saolta University Health Care Group on the implementation of the recommendations of the review of gynaecological services in Letterkenny published last August. This briefing comes following a recent announcement that the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, is to carry out a review of governance arrangements for gynaecological services at Letterkenny University Hospital. This review is timely. We can all agree that gynaecological services need to be improved and the waiting times for diagnosis, treatment and consultation reduced.
I also note the excellent recommendations given by the Citizens' Assembly last weekend on the issue of gender equality. Among its many recommendations were that maternity leave should be introduced for all elected representatives, that lone parents should get the same total period of parental leave as couples, that childcare should be publicly funded, that we should move towards a living wage instead of a minimum wage by 2025 and that we should have a right to collective bargaining. What actions will the Government be taking in the next year in respect of these recommendations?
I very much welcome the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly and I thank its members for the work they have done. They have produced a really excellent report, as did the Constitutional Convention and previous citizens' assemblies such as that which considered the eighth amendment. Government will consider these recommendations and the Oireachtas will also want to do so. We will be able to issue a reasoned response once we have done that. It is fair to say that Government will agree with and want to pursue many, and perhaps the vast majority, of the recommendations but, as is always the case with citizens' assemblies, this assembly has looked at a particular set of matters in a discrete way while we all know, from our experience in politics, that, whether we like it or not, there are limitations. We have limited financial resources, human resources and legislative time. It is never possible to do everything we would like to at the one time but we can do a lot of things over time.
We have heard the fantastic news today that the Minister, Deputy McEntee, has had a baby boy. Huge congratulations to Helen and Paul. It is powerful proof for young women watching that they can hold high office and still be supported in having a baby. However, as the Tánaiste said, we have more to do. As Deputy McEntee has said, that was a temporary sticking plaster. I hope today can be a springboard moment and that the Government will now commit to a plan to introduce the necessary permanent arrangements to support women in politics, all the way from councillors to Cabinet members. I hope Government will show real ambition in this regard. For example, it might do so as a little welcome back gift before the Minister returns from maternity leave. The elements of it are coming together. I published a Bill on remote voting for Deputies and Senators. That Bill was supported by the women's caucus and is being advanced with the Taoiseach. The Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, is dealing with maternity leave for councillors. This is very needed, even in my own area where two councillors have had babies since being elected. Will the Tánaiste commit to showing ambition in respect of developing a suite of measures to get this sorted?
I thank the Deputy for her work on this topic. Anybody who has looked into the matter will understand the complexity of it all. Something being complex is not, however, an excuse not to act. It is our intention to put in place more permanent and durable solutions as opposed to the sticking-plaster version put in place for the Minister and for councillors around the country. One thing we need to bear in mind, which often does not come across in public debates, is that, while it is absolutely wrong that women politicians do not have maternity leave as a right, that is not necessarily for the reasons people think. Officeholders, politicians and judges are not employees. We have no employment rights. We have to look at these issues in the round.
I join with others in congratulating the Minister, Deputy McEntee, on her wonderful news this morning.
The programme for Government contains a commitment to ending direct provision. I am delighted that it was announced just a few weeks ago that this will happen by 2024. It cannot happen soon enough. I grew up in Meelick, County Clare, which is the location of one of Ireland's oldest direct provision centres, and I have got to know and befriended many families there over the years. This system cannot be wound down soon enough. Eyes in the community are now turning to what will happen to that site afterwards. It has been some form of direct provision centre or refugee facility right back to the 1950s and 1960s. There are a number of local sports clubs such as Meelick GAA Club, Parkville Football Club, Ballynanty Rovers and Thomond Rugby Football Club. The site is right on the boundary between the north of Limerick city and the south Clare area. It is a colossal landbank located near Limerick Institute of Technology and the new northern distributor road. I hope Government has a vision for this site which will give a new purpose that many people across different age groups can enjoy for many years to come.
I am not sure if there are any specific plans for the Meelick site but I will let the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, know that the Deputy has raised the matter and has some suggestions as to how it could be put into use for the benefit of the community. I am sure he will want to consider them. It is the Government's policy to phase out direct provision and it has committed to doing so but we are realistic that it will take quite some time. We have a housing shortage in this country and there is a real difficulty with capacity in the construction centre which is an issue in building not only the houses we need, but also the public infrastructure we need. There are real limitations in that regard. There is going to be a difficulty.
I wish to be associated with the kind regards being sent to the Minister, Deputy McEntee, on the birth of her son.
This week, we learned from RTÉ that a seven-year-old girl with autism has been informed that she will have to wait until 2026 for an appointment with school-age support services. Such a timeframe is, unfortunately, not unique, although it is atypical for the HSE to be so blunt. I am aware of dozens of families in my constituency whose children are waiting years for assessments of need, autism services, child development supports, occupational therapy, physiotherapy and psychology services.
In most cases, the only information that their families can get is that there are extensive waiting lists. What will the Government do to ensure that, as we emerge from the pandemic, autism services and other services for our children do not just return to where they were, which was clearly not good enough, but become worthy services that can deliver the much-needed supports these children deserve?
As the Deputy will be aware, the Government is developing our first autism-specific strategy. It will be an important step forward. Work on that is under way. I am sorry to hear about the individual cases that the Deputy raised, but the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, who has responsibility for disability services, is taking a real interest in this matter and will do her best to improve matters over the coming years.
The programme for Government seeks to work to protect customers during and after Covid-19, with particular emphasis on business disruption insurance and supporting the Central Bank's direction on compensating businesses with disruption cover for infectious diseases. In recent weeks, FBD's attempts to deduct State supports like the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, and rates waivers from the overall awards to its clients have been highlighted repeatedly in the media. I would like to hear from the Tánaiste on this matter. Will he detail how the State will ensure that supports provided by it will not be deducted and essentially pocketed by insurers? What steps would the State take in such an eventuality?
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I heard the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, speaking authoritatively on it a few weeks ago. The PUP is paid directly to the individual and should not fall into this at all. However, there is a basic principle that, when it comes to an insurance policy, one cannot be compensated for the same thing twice. That is why insurers will, in some cases at least, deduct Government grants from insurance payouts. However, that money should therefore be paid by the insurance company to the State. That is done with other insurance policies and we will pursue the issue.
I congratulate the Minister, Deputy McEntee.
I heard some of the Tánaiste's responses in which he referred to the division in opinion on the efficacy of rapid testing. Does he agree that there is also an even sharper difference in opinion on the whole notion of a vaccine passport, or an immunity certificate as it is being called? Does he not agree that the introduction of such a system would in effect create a two-tiered society where people who could not take the vaccine for any number of a variety of reasons would be the new underclass and be excluded from significant areas of public life? Does he not agree that this would constitute blatant medical apartheid? In the event of the introduction of such a system, what will be the position on people's right to worship? Are the clergy of any denomination expected to turn away people who want to exercise their right to worship on the basis that they have not been vaccinated?
This is a fraught area and it requires some discussion, including perhaps in this House. Using vaccine passports or vaccine green passes could have the benefit of allowing us to open up our society more quickly and allow more people to return to work and businesses to open. On the down side, it would create a division in our society between people who are vaccinated and people who choose not to be or cannot be vaccinated. These issues have to be teased out. If this were a temporary measure for a few months while we got a chance to be vaccinated, the majority of us would not begrudge those who were vaccinated additional freedoms or begrudge the opportunity for businesses to reopen or people to return to work. However, no one would like to see it becoming a new feature of society in the medium or long term. At the moment, the Government has no proposals to do any of this. The reopening of businesses that the House will hear about today will not be contingent on people being vaccinated, but there will be a vaccine bonus for people meeting up privately.
There is concern in my constituency about the overcrowding in University Hospital Limerick. I have raised the issue countless times in this Chamber and the previous Dáil and communicated with the Ministers, yet nothing seems to have been done. University Hospital Limerick, which serves the mid-west region and is located in Limerick city, averages 1,000 patients per month lingering on trolleys, which is unacceptable in the middle of a pandemic. The issue has escalated to such proportions that the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, has called for an investigation into it. Staff are at their wits' end and the INMO has raised concerns that, while there has been significant recruitment and 100 new acute beds have been opened, the hospital still faces runaway overcrowding. This is unacceptable and has to stop. It is not good enough for the patients and staff. A 96-bed unit was committed to, but only half of those will be new beds. The delivery of all 96 needs to be expedited.
Day after day, the figures show that University Hospital Limerick remains the most overcrowded hospital in the State. The INMO wants to know what is going wrong, as do I.
This is the first time in a long while when the issue of trolleys or hospital overcrowding has been raised with me in the House. It used to be something that was raised nearly every week when I was on my feet. That tells a story in itself. The problem of trolleys and hospital overcrowding has not gone away by any means, but it is considerably less than it was before the pandemic. Even though emergency department attendances are back to 2019 levels, we have seen a considerable reduction in the number of people who have to wait on a trolley for a bed. I do not have the exact figures, but it is down more than half on what it would have been in 2018 or 2019. That is due to the additional investment, changes in pathways and reforms that have been made by the HSE in recent years. This is not to say that we do not still have big problems in some hospitals. Limerick is one of those. It will require more capacity in the years ahead.
It is encouraging that we are preparing to ease restrictions. We are only able to do that because of the success of the vaccination roll-out plan and the sacrifices made by people up and down the country. Young people in particular have made significant sacrifices and lost out on many rites of passage. That is why it is so important that driving lessons are considered in the context of easing restrictions. Young people are among the 80,000 waiting on driver theory tests and the 50,000 waiting on driving tests. It is important that we consider how to better resource our capacity in terms of increasing driving testers and implementing the roll-out of online theory tests. Will the Tánaiste provide an update on how the Government plans to support people who want to get motoring?
I thank Deputy Higgins for raising this issue. It is something on which the Government is working. Young people in particular need to be able to get on the road, especially in rural areas but also in urban areas, such as our shared constituencies in west Dublin. We are keen to see a return to driving lessons and driving tests and to enable theory tests to be done online, which would help. Some work is being done on this matter by the senior officials group on Covid. We should be in a position to issue some positive news, if not today, then in the near future.
The Tánaiste is well aware that several applications for funding for the port access northern cross route have been rejected, the most recent one under the urban regeneration and development fund. I wrote to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, almost six weeks ago seeking a simple answer to a simple question on whether there was an appeals process under which local authorities could appeal. Almost six weeks later and he still has not bothered to respond and give clarification. I do not know whether he is dodging the question or this is a delaying tactic, but it was a simple question. If there was an appeals process, it would allow Louth County Council to resubmit a revised application. There is still several hundred million euro left unallocated in the fund. This is not the Tánaiste's brief, but is he aware of an appeals process under the fund?
I am not aware of whether there is an appeals process. I will ask the Minister to respond to the Deputy's letter. I am aware of this issue.
It has been raised with me by Deputy O'Dowd, among others, and we agreed on the need to build that road for many different reasons. It seems to fall between two stools. It is really a transport project, but the application was made under the urban regeneration fund. We need the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to work together to come up with a solution for this so that Government funding can be provided to get the road built.
I congratulate the Minister, Deputy McEntee, and her husband, Paul. With the strong footballing genes, I hope that in future their son declares for County Roscommon.
While I welcome yesterday's decision by the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to waive the €125 per table licence fee for outdoor dining, Government support needs to go much further. On average we have 225 days of rain per year in this country. If there is to be a shift of the mindset in Ireland to outdoor dining, it will require a significant outlay by businesses which have been the worst hit by the pandemic to date. This does not just relate to furniture, but also to heating and insurance. Those businesses will need to make a serious financial commitment and we need to support them by waiving that fee, not just for some months but for five years for anyone who establishes such services this year. I hope the period can be extended.
We will certainly give the matter consideration. I am not sure we can waive the fee for five years but perhaps we can do a bit better than what we have done to date. As a result of the pandemic, many businesses have changed their models. Restaurants are doing dinner boxes and takeaways when they never did so before because they have been allowed to do so. Hospitality businesses are using outdoor space in a way they did not before. That might be a permanent change to their business model. It might create new opportunities for revenue and employment. It should be something that we support and perhaps make permanent. However, they will need Government backing to do that and the Deputy's suggestion is a good one.
There are four Members left on the list, but only three of them are in the Chamber. With their co-operation and the co-operation of the Tánaiste, I will use my discretion and allow the three Deputies to each ask questions for 30 seconds and take one response from the Tánaiste. Otherwise the Deputies will not be reached and their contributions will move to next week.
Next month will mark three years since the referendum to repeal the eighth amendment. We still have no news, nor can we get any clarity, on when the review of that legislation will be held, how it will be held, how it will be governed and who will be conducting it. I ask the Tánaiste to seek that clarity for us. It is a bit over the top to have to wait. We also have no clarity on whether we will get the ancillary recommendations of the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution on free contraception and non-ethos-based sex education.
I, too, offer my good wishes to the Minister, Deputy McEntee.
I do not know if the Tánaiste is aware that students have been pushed out and denied SUSI grants because they have accepted the pandemic unemployment payment. If they were on the TWSS, they would be treated differently. At a minimum, I am asking the Tánaiste to introduce the normal disregards for student employment income. This needs to be implemented immediately. That is a deduction of €4,500 for holiday earnings. The PUP is an exceptional payment and must be regarded as such. Putting it into their pockets with one hand and removing it with another is not acceptable. Can the Government fix it?
Some weeks ago, I raised with the Tánaiste the issue of the recent publication of the Hennessy report and, more important, the actioning of the recommendations from that report. As I have outlined previously, the poultry industry is of enormous importance in the constituency of Cavan-Monaghan. An outbreak of disease has serious economic implications. I understand the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine convened a meeting of the stakeholders this week. I ask the Tánaiste for an update on that or to get the Minister to respond to me on it.
Deputy Bríd Smith asked about the three-year review of the abortion legislation. That is planned. I understand the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, has done some initial work on it. I will ask him to provide the Deputy with more detail on that.
The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, is aware of the anomaly relating to the SUSI grant and is examining it with a view to finding a solution. I thank Deputy Conway-Walsh for raising the matter.
Deputy Niamh Smyth asked about the Hennessy report. I am afraid I do not have an update on that at the moment, but I will see the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine this afternoon. I will mention to him that the Deputy raised the matter and ask him to come back to her directly.
That concludes questions on promised legislation. Our new system seems to be working fairly well.
We do not have a Deputy present to move the First Stage of the Dog Breeding Establishments (Amendment) Bill 2021.
Deputy Kerrane is not present to move the First Stage of the Social Welfare (Payment Order) (Amendment) Bill 2021.