Wednesday, 19 May 2021
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
Yesterday, the mid west suffered another hammer blow with the decision of Aer Lingus to close its Shannon base. This has the potential to be catastrophic for the mid-west region. The Shannon-London-Heathrow connection, and these onward connections are vital to the people of the mid west and businesses in the area.
Sinn Féin vigorously opposed the privatisation of Aer Lingus in 2015 and we said at the time that it would leave the State at a strategic disadvantage and could cost jobs. The decision to sell off this key State asset now severely weakens the Government’s hand in this situation. We warned at the time that Aer Lingus was of such strategic importance to the State and to the mid-west region that it must be kept in State ownership. My thoughts are with the families and workers today. The Minister for Transport has taken a hands-off approach to aviation for too long and aviation workers are paying the price.
Yesterday the Taoiseach washed his hands of the problem by blaming it on the pandemic. The anger from staff and their families is palpable. This cannot be blamed on the pandemic alone. The real problem is the Government’s lack of planning. We have a crisis in aviation and jobs are being lost, many of which will not be replaced. We need direct intervention from the Taoiseach as the Minister for Transport is not up to the task.
First of all, the Government is deeply concerned about the decision of Aer Lingus yesterday. We are not blaming anyone but are seeking to do something about it. Government has been supporting both the airlines and the airports from the beginning of the pandemic, which I say without contradiction, through the means of the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, the various other schemes and the capital supports to the airports in capital and through the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, to support Aer Lingus. ISIF was condemned earlier but it has helped in terms of the liquidity of Aer Lingus, in particular.
I am acutely aware of the devastating impact that the Covid-19 restrictions have had on travel and aviation. This, unfortunately, cannot be denied. This is not to blame anyone; it is a reality. The virus has killed travel for the past year but we are determined to reopen aviation and we will work with the interests and workers in Shannon to see if we can get the situation changed.
I also raise the issue of Shannon. I live very close to it in my corner of Tipperary. The fact of the matter is that the baseline of traffic growth in Ireland and the volumes, taking 2013 as a baseline, is that 96% of all growth has been in Dublin. That is the real issue here. I have two questions for the Taoiseach. As to the €150 million ISIF loan, all other countries which gave state aid to airlines put conditions on this funding to protect workers and jobs. What conditions were put on this €150 million to protect jobs and can the Taoiseach outline these to the House?
Second, why in the name of God has the chairmanship of Shannon Airport been left vacant? When it came to this decision this week Aer Lingus had no one to talk to. I have asked this question of the Minister on multiple occasions. There is no chairperson for the guts of a year. This is ridiculous.
The airlines have lost heavily over the past year because of the pandemic and received liquidity support through the ISIF pandemic stabilisation and recovery fund.
There was a €32 million regional State airports programme which gave capital and current funding to Shannon and Cork Airports and which was important to them. Getting international travel back up and running is obviously the key to the continued economic well-being of Shannon, of Cork and the regions. Through the urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, for example, we have invested heavily in the regions. We need to grow the regional cities-----
How can anyone who lives in urban centres, such as my constituency of Dublin Central, see in the Taoiseach’s announcement yesterday to exempt apartments from stamp duty and planning as anything other than an abandonment of our city centres as a place to live or to aspire to own an apartment and raise a family? I cannot for the life of me understand why we can have one particular set of rules for suburbia and another for city centres. This was an abandonment and a white flag was raised by the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and it must be tackled.
I have dealt with this earlier. This is not an abandonment of anybody. There is a key issue about the supply of apartments and that is one that has to be balanced. We could do what people want and increase taxation or do this or that.
All of that could, cumulatively, reduce-----
-----the supply of apartments on the market. However, what we have done now with the 10% stamp duty is we have made a far better situation for first-time buyers of houses and duplexes. We are going to keep this-----
It is noteworthy how the Taoiseach is the only man in the building without an ideology. It really is quite striking. It is the best kind of ideology when you do not admit that it is an ideology.
Parents and staff at Firhouse Educate Together Secondary School have been forced to struggle again and again to ensure they have buildings for the kids and students on the school site. Last year, they fought successfully to ensure they were not forced to move to Citywest but they are back facing a crisis yet again where, because of delays, it seems the temporary accommodation may not be ready for September and they will again be faced with moving to Citywest. I am asking the Taoiseach to intervene with the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, to ensure the building work starts, the temporary accommodation is in place by September and there are contingency plans in place in case there are problems.
Obviously, the Minister for Education is responsible for the overall building programme. I know that Deputies across the constituency are engaged on this issue. Deputy Lahart has been in touch in relation to it as well. I will certainly talk to the Minister to see if we can get progress on that project.
Page 46 of the programme for Government pledges to invest in healthcare. In Wexford, we have no MRI scanner despite having raised €250,000 towards the project. There are 791 children who have been on the orthodontic waiting list for more than 48 months. We have two applicants for a psychologist position which is to be filled to serve the 40 children on the waiting list for child and adolescent mental health services. We cannot get those applications pulled out to receive a letter of offer. I am asking the Taoiseach to intervene on that issue. We cannot continue to allow these children to suffer. The 791 children on the orthodontic waiting list will ultimately end up with mental health problems. It is not so long ago that the Taoiseach and I were teenagers and we know how important teeth are. We know how important they are to children's confidence. Equally, it is important that children are seen by psychologists at an opportune time; not when it is too late. Early intervention is key. Please, Taoiseach.
I thank Deputy Murphy for raising this issue. The Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, has been in touch with me as well in relation to the CT scanner issue. We will be working with the Minister for Health and the HSE in relation to that because I know there has been a campaign locally and a lot of fundraising as well behind that.
In relation to the wider programme, the national HSE service plan is designed and a very substantial amount of funding now allocated to try to unblock some of those waiting lists, particularly in the mental health area, and teenage and child mental health in particular.
I am very concerned by the leaks from the Cabinet yesterday regarding the extension of the emergency powers for another six months. I honestly believe that the Taoiseach and his Government have become an existential threat to our democracy. That the Government is trying to push this in here to control people, deny them their rights and freedoms and literally destroy their will to live is shocking. It is being done without any debate in this House. The Taoiseach has not met Opposition party leaders or group leaders since November. He is stonewalling everything. Stonewalling is his new mantra. He stonewalls when a question is asked and then he puts it back on the person asking the question or gives them a lecture. He will probably give me a lecture now in a minute. It is outrageous that the Government could contemplate extending the powers for a further six months. We are meant to be coming out of the crisis and we are meant to be opening up but this is what the Government is at. It is all about control. That happened in Germany in 1933 and that is how it started there.
It is unfortunate in the House of late that politics and politicians get compared to Nazi Germany. This is the second time in recent weeks that Deputy McGrath has articulated that and I think it is bringing the Parliament----
Public health is about saving people's lives and the only reason for the public health Act was the pandemic. No Government wants to be introducing the kind of measures that we have had to introduce for the last 12 months but we do it on public health advice to protect people's health and to save lives. The legislative framework is required to enable Government to take those initiatives and it will be debated in the House. I ask the Deputy to refrain from using that kind of language. It is wrong. I think it is unparliamentary.
I wish to raise the issue of tenants in receipt of homeless HAP. Several people have contacted me recently on this issue. I will refer to two of them. I was contacted by a young woman who is in receipt of homeless HAP. In 2018 she was paying €1,500 and getting the cap of €990 under the homeless HAP, which meant she was paying €510 as a top-up. Several years later, she has now received a rent review which is to be implemented on 6 June. Her rent is being increased to €1,730.22. That is €740 extra in the context of the top-up.
A couple with a child who are living in two-bedroom apartment were initially paying a rent of €1,900 in 2018. They had a HAP top-up of €1,875, which is the maximum level. Their rent has been increased several times and they are now facing a rent of €2,096. That is an increase in the top-up to €221, from €25 several years ago. I raised this with the Dublin Region Homeless Executive. It stated that it has seen this issue raising its head, as has Threshold.
I will speak to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, in relation to those points. Perhaps the Deputy might forward them to the Minister as well just to illustrate them because, obviously, I do not have the detail of the individual cases or the council involved.
I refer to the devastating news that was delivered yesterday to 81 Aer Lingus cabin crew. The proposed move will have a devastating impact on the mid-west region. Connectivity is key to the recovery of the economy, for business and for tourism. Shannon Airport is a driver of economic activity in the mid-west region and it is a massive part of balanced regional development. The Government has dragged its feet on publishing a plan for the restoration of international air travel. It is critical that this plan is published as soon as possible and that the Taoiseach intervenes directly with Aer Lingus and asks it to reverse this decision. There is an opportunity here because Aer Lingus is in talks with the Government about a cash injection. It is crucial that we stitch into that deal that the Aer Lingus base in Shannon is protected, that the Shannon-New York and Shannon-Boston routes are protected-----
First of all, we will do everything we possibly can in terms of renewing international travel in as safe a way as we possibly can, both by participating in the European Union green digital certificate framework and also in terms of bringing in supports for the aviation industry to enable particularly Shannon Airport and Cork Airport, and the airports generally, to incentivise and bring travel back at the levels that would sustain them into the future. We will also engage with the airlines. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, are meeting Aer Lingus today and I certainly will be engaging on this at the highest level also.
I refer to the proposed new 170 km pipeline to bring water from the River Shannon into Dublin. It is proposed to pump 330 million litres per day from the River Shannon into the pipe infrastructure in Dublin which is leaking half its water. There is significant unease in the northern part of my constituency of Tipperary about this. The landowners along the route have already suffered as a result of a motorway going through their lands.
We are seriously questioning Irish Water's use of its capital. Many of our towns need investment in waste water treatment plants. Some towns and villages have not even got a waste water treatment plant. Ironically, Ballina, on the River Shannon in Tipperary, needs serious investment in its waste water treatment plant, the lack of which is seriously damaging its potential to expand its tourism and business infrastructure. I ask that Irish Water examines its use of capital. Does it make sense to pump this amount of water from the Shannon throughout the country when the pipe infrastructure in Dublin is leaking half its water? This should be examined.
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. This has been a long-standing and long-running project of many years. Since it was originally mooted and given the go-ahead, it has faced many challenges and hurdles. On the broader point, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, has allocated very significant extra funding to Irish Water to provide waste water treatment plants throughout the country. We are very keen on improving the water infrastructure all over the country and, in particular, to get schemes going in Ballina and other areas the Deputy identified. We will follow through on particular projects, some of which the Deputy has identified, with the Minister. On the bigger project, my understanding is Irish Water is engaging with the landowners, or will be, so we will see how that unfolds.
I am sure the Taoiseach is aware of the crisis in the public provision of dental healthcare. Many people from all over Kerry have contacted my office. They cannot even get an appointment to be seen, never mind receive dental treatment. The treatment service scheme is not fit for purpose. It has not been amended or improved for ten years. It is uneconomic for dentists to participate in the scheme and dentists are actually losing money if they take on new medical card patients.
People have contacted me to say dentists only receive €33 for a basic examination, which includes X-rays. For dentures, by the time dentists pay dental technicians, they only receive €20 per hour. It is not feasible to run a practice on that. Dentists feel ignored by the Department - they did not receive personal protective equipment, PPE, or grants and do not get a pension. There is an excellent new facility in Tralee but it needs more staff and more dentists.
The public dental facility must also be restored to Listowel and north Kerry. It is a basic healthcare need. People's rights are being denied. No wonder members of our diaspora are reluctant to return when they see this is the service they will get.
Again, we are aware of the situation in relation to public health dentistry overall. The Minister for Health and the HSE's national service plan have provided significant resources in that regard. I will raise the issues with the Minister that have been articulated by the Deputy this morning.
I will bring the Taoiseach back to what, in my view, is the totally disproportionate decision by Aer Lingus management yesterday to effectively sack 126 cabin crew and ground staff. Is there a full realisation in Government of the potential consequences of this for regional imbalance, tourism and investment generally in the region? What, if any, communication has been made with Aer Lingus management to ask it to reverse or at least review that decision, in view of the fact it was linked to quarantine, which, I am told, is due to end shortly? Can the Taoiseach confirm that quarantine will end shortly? Has the Government received any assurance from Aer Lingus regarding the valuable Shannon routes, particularly to Heathrow and to several American destinations?
I call on Aer Lingus to review and change its decision. The Ministers will meet with Aer Lingus management today. The entire thrust of Government policy is to create proper regional development and balance in the economic development of this country. Airports, including Shannon and Cork Airports, are key to that. As was said earlier, over the years the volume of traffic has been concentrated in the Dublin area so we need to build up regional cities, such as Limerick, Cork and many others. That is why the largest infrastructural investment has been put into those cities. On the specifics, there is a realisation in Government of the seriousness of this matter. No effort will be spared to get international travel back. Next week, we will have proposals around the entire area of international travel as we emerge from the pandemic.
I have been contacted by the residents of Mountnugent in County Cavan who are shocked and concerned by plans by Eir to erect a 12 m mast in the centre of the village. There has been no communication or consultation with local people. Mountnugent is a beautiful village, but if a mast is constructed there it will totally dominate it. As one local said to me, it will become known as the village with the mast.
Eir was refused planning permission for a mast on this site around 20 years ago. It is now trying to install a mast at this location ensuring it is under the height required for planning permission. However, the reasons planning was refused 20 years ago still apply. A mast that is 12 m or 40 ft high will be a total eyesore in the village. People also have health concerns about a structure like this being so close to residential areas and a school. There is already a telecommunications mast belonging to another company about a mile out the road, which provides good coverage for the community. Eir has the option to see if it could also use that mast, or whether there is enough open space in the vicinity of the village to erect a mast which will not impose an effect on it. Can masts in the centre of villages and towns be banned?
The overall development plan is a matter for the local county council. Obviously, the streetscape and aesthetic quality of any town or village is important. That should be reflected in the local area development plan. I do not know the specifics of this case, but one needs to balance the necessity for communications and people who want connectivity, with the aesthetics, streetscape and how a village or town looks.
Our programme for Government contains some very significant commitments to rural transport and sustainable rural mobility. It commits to developing and implementing a sustainable rural mobility plan and to protecting and expanding regional connectivity and connectivity between towns and villages in rural Ireland.
Unfortunately, what is happening in rural Ireland right now to public transport is the exact opposite. A slow but steady erosion of public transport options is occurring. Just two years ago, Bus Éireann decided to remove a number of towns and villages from the route connecting Dublin city to Galway. Last week, Bus Éireann decided to effectively end the evening and night-time service from Galway city to Gort and all the interconnecting villages between. From now, the services at 6.55 p.m., 8.55 p.m. and 9.55 p.m. have all been cancelled, without any consultation with those availing of them. We urgently need to engage with the National Transport Authority, NTA, and Bus Éireann to ensure this erosion is stopped in its tracks and people have access, as they should have right now, to sustainable rural mobility options.
We support very strongly the need for public transport, particularly rural public transport. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is particularly focused on this issue and the need to expand services, not erode them. I take the Deputy's concerns on board and will relay them to the Minister.
Adam Higgins has written a story published in today's newspaper about a young woman named Lauren. She is now waiting five months for her housing assistance payment, HAP, application to be processed. She is one of thousands. The people processing it in Fingal County Council have been advised by management in a message sent to staff and seen by The Sun:
Citizens requesting an update on their HAP application should not be advised that it is taking [x] number of months or weeks. Nor should they be advised what month we are currently processing. The advice should be that we are dealing with a large volume of applications and it is simply not possible to indicate when they may be processed.
It is really hard to find a landlord who will take HAP. It is €2,000 a month for rent. Factor in a deposit, plus five months' waiting, and that is €12,000. With the greatest of respect, if Lauren had €12,000 she would not need HAP.
I ask the Taoiseach to do two very simple things. Will he engage with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, to see if additional staff can be provided to Fingal County Council? I have already written to the Minister; he is well aware of this situation as it is in his constituency. Will the Taoiseach instruct the Department of Social Protection to give people the money they will need, pending their application being resolved?
These people are in desperate circumstances. The wait is unacceptable at this stage.
Extraordinary levels of funding have been allocated to housing and to councils in respect of HAP. I cannot administer every council or office in respect of this. They should be developing the capacity to administer this in a timely manner for people such as Lauren, who is waiting too long. I will relay this to the Minister, who is aware of it. I have no doubt he will get involved to try to resolve the issues.
I raise the issue following the resignation of a permanent GP from the general medical services, GMS, practice in Kiltimagh, County Mayo. The handling of the situation by the HSE has been hugely disappointing. There has been no stakeholder engagement with the local community or public representatives in assisting to fill the permanent GP position. Little or no clarification is available from the HSE about efforts to recruit a locum GP or about why this has not been done.
Elderly people were shocked to be informed last Friday by the HSE that they were required to find new GPs before 31 May. The HSE has indicated it has advertised for the medical card scheme on only two occasions. This will have a knock-on effect on the provision of GP services in Kiltimagh, with only one remaining GP in the town. I ask the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health to intervene, seek clarification from the HSE on this matter and request that the HSE re-advertise for a locum until a permanent GP is recruited and that the existing GMS panel be temporarily transferred.
I can but I expect the HSE at regional and local levels should be dealing with these issues with local representatives, to be fair. I will talk to the Minister but the broader point is that such issues should be resolved at local level. It is a serious issue for residents of the area.
The people of east Kerry, Rathmore and Gneevgullia are being asked to go up to Limerick for the jab, which is a two-hour drive. It is the same as if the people of Cashel, Wexford or Cavan and Sligo were told to come up here to Dublin for the vaccine. I appeal to the Government to allow the people of east Kerry, Rathmore and Gneevgullia to go back to Killarney, a 20-minute drive, for their vaccine. It is totally wrong. Elderly people will have to be taken out of their homes to go with the people that need the vaccines to Killarney.
I am really getting into micro-organisation of a range of services this afternoon. I do not know why they cannot go to Killarney. They should be going to Killarney. I will talk to the HSE. They do not have to go two hours to Limerick if they can get to Killarney and there is a centre in Killarney.
I welcome that the Government supported Sinn Féin's motion on affordable housing last night, albeit by accident, it seems. The Government may have been asleep at the wheel again. I want the Taoiseach to tell the people of my constituency in counties Meath and Westmeath, many of whom pay huge rents with little hope of owning a home, what he and the Government will do to deliver on the commitments contained in our motion last night to deliver affordable homes for a maximum price of €230,000, cap rents at €900 and double capital investment on housing to €2.8 billion.
We will do what the Deputy's party will not do, namely, get as many houses and apartments built as we can. That means everybody has to be on board at local level when schemes come up. There is a housing crisis. It is the issue for younger generations who aspire to own homes, people who cannot get off HAP into social housing and people on social housing lists. We need to support projects when they come before councils, get them over the line and get houses built-----
I ask the Taoiseach again about the situation facing people journeying through maternity. For many, attending scans at 12 weeks and 20 weeks can be a difficult time if there is not good news. Nobody should do it alone. There seem to be inconsistencies still, despite the commitments made on allowing partners to accompany pregnant women throughout the maternity journey. Will the Taoiseach redouble his efforts to ensure there is total consistency throughout the country for every woman and her partner as they journey through pregnancy?
I appreciate the question, which is in good faith and on a very serious issue. I have spoken to the CEO of the HSE and the Minister, who have assured me that consistency will be applied. This issue was raised last week and the week before in the House. I think the Deputy raised it last week. We were told that the vast majority had complied with the new clinical guidance nationally. I am surprised there are inconsistencies and I will follow through on that.