Wednesday, 19 May 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I have raised this issue many times. I basically seek the Government to put in place a waiver for families with disabilities or where there are long-term illnesses, for example, where incontinence pads or pull-ups are required in the case of children or young adults, so that the cost of refuse is defrayed or reduced. This would be by virtue of the introduction of a national waiver, which would be sanctioned by Government and would provide a measure of financial alleviation for many hard-pressed families, in particular, working families with children with disabilities.
I raised this issue, about which I feel very strongly, on a number of occasions with three Ministers. What is of little cost to the Exchequer could have a massive impact on the annual expenses of families who rely on incontinence pads or where there are significant medical issues, particularly families with children who have a requirement, either in childhood or young adulthood and onwards, for pull-ups or other such mechanisms or measures that are necessary in dealing with their particular conditions or illnesses.
Ministers, including the Minister, Deputy Ryan, have told me that there is, in essence, a price monitoring group. He said:
In an effort to see how best to support persons with long-term incontinence with respect to the disposal of medical incontinence wear
... [His] Department ... [had] been examining this issue in detail for some time and has engaged with relevant stakeholders, including representative organisations and the HSE.
I merely wish to know whether the Government is giving active consideration to this. In anticipation of the Minister of State's response, I would say please do not come back to me with the general data protection regulation, GDPR, response or the sensitive medical data response. The Minister of State has responsibility for that area. It has been thrown up as a red herring in respect of not dealing with this issue.
One cannot expect a family to dispose of this type of matter through recycling or through the compost bin. That is self-evident. It must be done through residual waste.
In parts of the country with a weight-based system, bills are high as €400. I have seen examples of €400, €500 and €600 per annum. It is a significant cost. For what would be a small, barely measurable dent in Exchequer funding, this could have a massive impact for families, and it can be done. People yield up sensitive medical information to the Department of Social Protection when applying for an invalidity pension, a disability allowance or an illness benefit. A similar scheme could be devised for these families where sensitive medical data could be yielded up in a safe, responsible and secure way.
It would have a massive impact on thousands of families throughout the State who are bearing a massive financial burden.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I am answering this matter because the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, recently delegated authority over waste policy and the circular economy to me.
I appreciate that the Deputy has had a long series of engagements on this issue and that it is not yet resolved.
The waste management market in Ireland is serviced by private companies, on a side-by-side competition basis. Prices in the market are matters between those companies and their customers subject to compliance with all applicable legislation, including contract and consumer legislation.
The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, published A Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy in September of last year. The plan includes more than 200 measures and will shift the focus away from waste disposal and looks instead to how we can preserve resources by creating a circular economy.
In June 2017, the Government decided to phase out flat-fee or flat-rate charges for residual kerbside household waste collection to deliver on national policy and to ensure that Ireland meets current and future waste targets as well as to ease the pressure being placed on our capacity to manage residual municipal waste. The Government decision also envisaged "the provision of a financial support to persons with lifelong/long-term medical incontinence to help meet the cost of disposal of medical incontinence wear".
Since mid-2017, a range of charging options have operated, which encourage householders to reduce and separate their waste. This provides flexibility to waste collectors to develop various service-price offerings that suit different household circumstances. Mandatory per kilogramme pay-by-weight charging was not introduced. A price monitoring group, PMG, was established in mid-2017 to monitor the ongoing cost of residential waste collection to homeowners across Ireland as the flat-rate structure was being phased out. While fluctuations in prices and service offerings have been observed, the overall trend has been relative price stability. Results from the PMG are available on my Department's website.
Since the 2017 decision to phase out flat-rate fees, the Department has examined a number of proposals to deliver the proposed support for incontinence waste, including through detailed engagement with the HSE, Department of Social Protection, National Waste Collection Permit Office, Office of the Data Protection Commissioner and relevant non-governmental organisations in an effort to find a workable scheme for the delivery of such a support. Unfortunately these efforts have not been successful to date, including due to the absence of a list of persons who are in receipt of free medical incontinence wear from the HSE. However, general data protection regulation, GDPR, issues arising, including consent and principle of data minimisation, and procurement issues and administrative costs if a private third party were to deliver the support on behalf of my Department, were also contributing factors.
My officials are continuing to review these efforts to establish what further actions, if any, can be taken pending the availability of the list of recipients of free medical incontinence wear from the HSE.
It should be noted that there has never been a national waiver scheme for household waste collection. During the period in which local authorities were directly involved in the collection of household waste, a minority of individual local authorities offered different levels of discount to selected households, based on different qualification criteria. As local authorities exited the waste collection market, some required the private operators that took on the local authorities' customers to provide a level of discount for existing waiver customers only, and even then, for only a limited time.
With the exception of one or two municipal districts, local authorities no longer collect waste. Waste collection is now serviced by a diverse range of private operators, where the fees charged are a matter between service provider and customer and the range of services and fees offered vary amongst providers and across the country. In that regard, it is apparent that a national waiver scheme could not be imposed in the context of an open market for waste collection.
The Minister of State said there was a Government decision envisaging "the provision of a financial support to persons with lifelong/long-term medical incontinence to help meet the cost of disposal of medical incontinence wear". What he has told us is that they have no intention of doing this. Minister after Minister has been talking around and telling me the same thing for nearly four years.
We either look after vulnerable people in this society or we do not. On the suggestion to families that this is a market solution and that they should go to their local provider, I can tell the Minister of State that I have a family with two children - their parents are John and Neasa - a five-year-old and a 15-year-old, both on pull-ups. Their cost is €400 per year. A working family with a mortgage trying to do their best, they know that they will have to deal with this as a long-term issue for their children. They went to their local provider but the market will not sort them out because their local provider, which is a significant collector of waste in the north Cork area and provides an excellent service, has said that this is a matter for Government. There is a Government decision on this.
I was hopeful, dare I say it, that a Green Minister with responsibility for this would come to me with an answer that would at least see some progression of the issue. I ask the Minister of State not to throw the market issue or the price monitoring group at us and to bring in all of the providers and get it done if at all possible. So many families throughout the country would be so grateful that some Government finally would have dealt significantly with this issue. For a small cost to the Exchequer, it would be so meaningful for so many families.
The Deputy is correct that there is a Government decision from 2017. I am restating that. It is a problem that needs to be solved.
My Department has been examining this issue in detail for some time and has engaged with relevant stakeholders, including representative organisations and the HSE, in an effort to see how best to support persons with long-term incontinence with respect to the disposal of medical incontinence wear. However, there are complex issues at play in this area which are understandable given the sensitive nature of the medical data in question.
The delays in establishing a suitable scheme are primarily due to the absence of a list of persons who are in list of persons who are in receipt of free medical incontinence wear from the HSE. However, GDPR issues arising such as consent and principle of data minimisation, and procurement issues and administrative costs are also contributing factors. One can see that there is a concern if we are asking the HSE to provide a list of people with long-term incontinence problems to waste providers. It is not an insurmountable problem but there is a genuine issue there.
My officials are continuing to review these efforts to establish what further actions can be taken. These efforts will continue, focusing particularly on pricing trends. Since mid-2017, a range of charging options have operated, which encourage householders to reduce and separate their waste. This provides flexibility to waste collectors to develop different offerings that suit different households. Mandatory pay-by-weight charging was not introduced. A PMG was established in mid-2017 to monitor the ongoing cost of residential waste collection to homeowners across Ireland as the flat-rate structure was being phased out. While fluctuations in prices and service have been observed, the overall trend has been relative stability.
In September, I launched a new national waste policy for the period 2020 to 2025, A Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy. This plan contains a range of measures to empower households to enhance consumer protection requirements. It also envisages an enhanced monitoring of the market to ensure that no changes occur in relative price stability.