Thursday, 3 June 2021
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
Farmers receive various payments per hectare under the Common Agriculture Policy. These payments are based on production levels from two decades ago. Most EU countries have moved to a flat rate payment per hectare in a process known as convergence. Such a process would benefit the majority of farmers in Ireland. A total of 60% of Irish farms would get more. Why is the Government adopting a position in the CAP talks that runs against the interests of the majority of farmers? Why is it fighting against a front-loaded payment that would benefit smaller farmers? Why is it resisting an upper payment limit that would stop the obscenities whereby beef barons and sheiks receive hundreds of thousands of euro each year in CAP payments while most farmers struggle to survive? When he was in opposition, the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, demanded increased fairness even during the transition period. In power, he is delaying the entire CAP process and fighting against any measure of fairness. Whose interests is the Government serving in these CAP talks?
The Government serves the interests of Irish farmers and Irish farm families in these talks and of course this is what we will do. We want to see more food production. We want to see farm income rise. We also want to make sure we have a Common Agriculture Policy that aligns with our climate objectives, which is crucial too.
Currently, the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, is engaged in the negotiations and I would not like to comment on them in too much detail. The Deputy knows there has been convergence in recent years and this is the direction of travel. It does have consequences and there are winners and losers, and the losers are not all sheiks and beef barons. They are also family farms. There are parts of the country that may benefit and there are parts that will lose out. We have to look at all of these in the round.
For a number of weeks now, I have been raising an issue on behalf of more than 500,000 people, those who have got their first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine. These are mostly 60-year-olds to 69-year-olds but they also include some over 50s, some of whom are in cohort 4 and some healthcare workers who got it earlier. These people are in some cases the most vulnerable but they will have the longest wait before they get fully vaccinated over the summer and will not necessarily enjoy the same freedoms, potentially, as the rest of us. There are two aspects to this. Now that the National Immunisation Advisory Committee, NIAC, has recommended that the length of time be eight weeks rather than 12 weeks, I want to know when will this be implemented because I have literally hundreds of emails, calls and texts from all over the country asking the same questions. Second, given the efficacy of two doses of AstraZeneca is not as good as AstraZeneca plus Pfizer/BioNTech, will Pfizer/BioNTech be considered as a second dose as well?
We have updated advice now from NIAC which is recommending that we can go back to an eight-week interval between AstraZeneca doses. That is welcome news for healthcare workers and others - people in their 50s and 60s who have received AstraZeneca and would like to get fully vaccinated as soon as possible. We want them to be fully vaccinated as soon as possible. The recommendation from NIAC is in line with the European Medicines Agency, EMA, which says 56 days is a sufficient interval between doses, but not less.
What is happening now, over the next couple of days and over the weekend is that the HSE is working out if and how it can operationalise that. Supplies from AstraZeneca have been patchy, inadequate and unsatisfactory and we want to make sure we have enough doses to do that. The intention is to move in that direction and to get people who have had their first dose of AstraZeneca, AZ, getting their second dose as soon as possible.
It is hard for many to understand why one of the mother and baby home commissioners participated in an Oxford University seminar yesterday to discuss the commission's report but would not come before the Oireachtas committee. I welcome and totally agree with what the Tánaiste said that there is no excuse for this. I have written to the committee requesting that it invite them in again.
It is harder to understand how the findings of the commission's report were in so many cases completely contradictory to the testimony of survivors, for example, that there was no evidence of forced adoption. It is impossible to understand how the Government has not rejected the commission's report. The Tánaiste stated that if the commission discounted testimonies, it is a problem. I can tell the Tánaiste that it did. It referred to witness testimonies as contaminated. The commissioner yesterday described State files as an utter disgrace and local authority files as another disgrace, but they were not considered contaminated. Will the Government repudiate the report and produce the underlying archive to give survivors the administrative files and their personal data? We need the dedicated archive. Crucially, we need to repudiate the report. Survivors were denied the archive detail. This report is rewriting people's lived experience and Irish history.
As I said earlier, and I know the Deputy would agree with this, there is a difference between evidence and testimony on the one hand, which may well be true, and proof of fact which is something different. Obviously, any commission of inquiry or investigation would have to have a burden of proof that is above the level of testimony or evidence. It would have to be challenged. It would have to be backed up. However, I am stating the obvious in that regard. We all appreciate that.
I can only repeat what I said earlier. It is now beyond time that the members of the commission come forward, accept the invitation to appear before an Oireachtas committee, explain their report and answer the questions the Deputy is legitimately asking here in the House - they are the ones who can best answer how they came to the findings they did and the processes they followed - and meet with the survivors. All of that is now long overdue.
This segment is about promised legislation. What I will ask the Tánaiste today was promised and was legislated for but it was never implemented.
The Assisted Decision Making (Capacity) Act dates back to December 2015. This was welcome legislation that replaced antiquated laws around the wards of court. Incredibly, after five and a half years, it has not been implemented. Things work slowly in the Chamber but this is incredibly slow. Why has there been such a delay and when will the Act be implemented replacing the antiquated laws around wards of court?
I have stood on the floor 15 times since being elected in as many months to request that a child psychologist be appointed to the child and adolescent mental services in Wexford, in Arden House. I am pleased to say we are at the stage where a letter of offer has been made and that position will be filled by July. I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Butler, and the Government. I have addressed the Tánaiste on the matter and I thank him. Please God, we will see that fulfilled in July.
In the programme for Government, the Government talks about obesity. Unfortunately, we have anorexic children in Wexford in epidemic proportions. It is transpiring through this pandemic that there is a huge increase in the number of anorexic children and we do not have a dietitian post filled. We only have an allocation for half a dietitian. I appeal for that to be reviewed and a dietitian appointed.
I am glad to hear that news, by the way. I hope the offer is accepted and that the post is filled as soon as possible. I recognise the Deputy's consistent advocacy in seeking that that post be made available for the children and people in Wexford who need it.
I will have to take up the point about the dietitian with the HSE. Ultimately, those decisions are operational ones for the HSE. The fact that the Deputy raised it here in the Chamber demonstrates how important it is and how we need to provide better services for people with eating disorders, and we are determined to do that.
I cannot emphasise enough the problems for the agriculture sector in this country. Everybody - even city people - is only a generation away from this sector. The Tánaiste's family farm is down in Dungarvan.
The importance of the talks at present under CAP is vital and there is a huge fear out there that the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, is at sea. We have been devastated in fisheries with Brexit. We cannot allow the big factory farmers and the conglomerates to dictate policy. The Tánaiste stated earlier in a reply that family farms are vital. Family farms are barely hanging on and they need a fair deal under this CAP. What is happening in other European countries seems to be a whole lot different from what is happening here.
I met with the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, and other farm organisations. They are hugely concerned about the convergence, about the issues involved in CAP, and that the Minister may have stopped the talks. The Minister needs to be on top of his game here, and the Department too. We need a good strong position on CAP for Irish farmers.
The importance of the outcome of these talks cannot be underestimated for rural Ireland and for our farmers and our food industry. They are ongoing and I am limited in what I can say. Perhaps the best thing might be, if he is available, for the Minister to come before the House when we resume in a few days' time and give a briefing and take questions on it.
My constituency office in Donegal is inundated with calls from anxious people who have had to apply for or renew medical cards. With the systems down due to the cyberattack, it is very frustrating and worrying for people, and they are not even applying for medical cards.
As a GP, the Tánaiste will be aware that there is a facility available through GP surgeries to issue medical cards in emergency circumstances. Many GPs are not aware of that and my office has to tell them they can do it. I would ask the Tánaiste and the Government to ensure that GPs are reminded of this service, that they provide it, and ensure that pharmacies are notified so that people can get medication without having to worry too much about it.
I thank the Deputy. I will certainly mention that to the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. We are aware of problems, obviously related to the cyberattack, that have caused delays in processing medical cards. As the Deputy rightly states, it is possible for GPs to issue emergency medical cards. It is not something we particularly encourage, by the way, but sometimes it is necessary. This is one of those times where, I think, it is necessary. Perhaps we can send out a circular to GPs reminding them of that process and letting them know that it can be done in extreme circumstances such as this.
The challenges of living with a rare condition are acknowledged in the programme for Government, which states that rare conditions are complex, their impacts are severe on the patients living with them and it can at times be difficult to access appropriate medication and technology. It is estimated that there are 300,000 people living with rare conditions in Ireland, 4% of whom are children and have received their diagnoses by the time they are 16 years of age. While rare diseases are individually rare, they are collectively common. Last week, the Joint Committee on Health heard that Ireland has one fifth of the genetic specialists needed to service the population and that genetics and genomics in general are services that seem to be in a powerless state. According to the programme for Government, the Government will publish an updated national rare diseases plan, promote research and clinical trials, establish a national genetics and genomics medicine network, and support the medical genetics service in Our Lady's Children's Hospital Crumlin. Will the Tánaiste indicate the progress in implementing these commitments?
As the Deputy stated, rare diseases in Ireland are not rare. While they are rare individually, they are common when they are added together. During my time as Minister for Health, I had the pleasure and privilege of developing Ireland's first rare diseases strategy and establishing the National Rare Diseases Office, but progress in recent years has been slow for many reasons. I am not in a position to give the Deputy a proper update on where we stand on the matters in question, but I will let the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, know that they were raised in the House and ask him to write to her to set out what is being done and what we plan to do.
This week, yet another meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council could not go ahead due to a boycott by certain unionist politicians in Northern Ireland. In light of the Taoiseach's meeting this evening with the new leader of the DUP and, indeed, the new leader of political unionism, what will the Government do to reaffirm the commitments in the programme for Government to North-South relations, reconciliation and the Good Friday Agreement? The institutions of the Good Friday Agreement cannot be allowed to become optional. They are important to everyone on the island. I appeal to the Tánaiste to ensure that every effort is made to make sure that all future meetings go ahead and the spirit of reconciliation and engagement continues.
As the Deputy knows, the Taoiseach will meet the new leader of the DUP this evening. We hope that a meeting of the British-Irish Council will go ahead as planned on Friday. We all look forward to the election of a new First Minister. I look forward to engaging with the new First Minister and the deputy First Minister once they are appointed.
I agree with the Deputy's remarks. The Good Friday Agreement is not something that one can opt in or out of. It was agreed not just by the political parties, but by the sovereign governments and was voted for in referendums - 97% in this jurisdiction and more than 70% in Northern Ireland. Any democrat on this island who is elected to office has an obligation and responsibility to take part in those institutions and ensure that they work.
On page 115 of the programme for Government, the Government commits to ensuring that all enlisted members of the Defence Forces have the same access to healthcare as officers do. What progress has been made towards achieving this? Will the PDFORRA medical assistance scheme be extended beyond the end of the year and its scope be expanded to include family members and ex-service personnel?
As I understand it, the scheme is run by PDFORRA and is based on the cross-border directive, which has probably been disrupted by Brexit. I hope that it can continue, but I cannot give a specific commitment in that regard. The bigger issue, which was in my party's manifesto and has been included in the programme for Government, is that we should provide much better healthcare and access to healthcare for enlisted soldiers and naval and Air Corps personnel. Officers have a good set of healthcare arrangements, but the same is not the case for the other ranks. That is not fair. This is one of the practical improvements that we can make to help retention and recruitment in our Defence Forces. I will get an update from the Minister, Deputy Coveney, on the matter, find out what progress we are making and revert to the Deputy with a more detailed reply.
I acknowledge the additional supports provided this week to the 225,000 businesses that are the backbone of our economy. They generate employment and tax revenue, on which the provision of State services is based. In particular, I thank the Tánaiste for the business resumption support scheme, BRSS, which I hope will capture the small number of businesses that have been left out of the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, or the Tánaiste's own scheme for technical reasons. The BRSS is designed in part to support those businesses. While that is fantastic, I urge that they be given additional weight when accessing its funding. I am thinking in particular of catering companies, which have fallen between two stools. I thank the Tánaiste for all his work on the BRSS.
I thank the Deputy. At this stage, I hope that we have managed to cover almost everyone who has been left out of the CRSS with different schemes. We are considering including event catering in the new events scheme, which will be published later this month.
The "B-RSS", "BRSS" or whatever we are going to call it will have a much wider reach than the CRSS. It will be for companies whose turnovers are down by 75% or more, but they will not need to have a rateable premises. It will be based on their turnover, which was the original CRSS concept, now reborn as the BRSS. The details are to be worked out.
Last Friday, a tender was published to expand local employment services into four new areas. This would have been welcome had the local employment services been extended based on the existing service, which is community based and not for profit. Instead, the tender proposes a new payment-by-results model similar to that found in JobPath. It proposes the end of the community ethos and person-centred approach taken by the local employment services and job clubs and ends the vital walk-in services for those who are sometimes the furthest away from the labour market. Most damaging of all, the tender is a mirror of the "any job will do" approach that puts profit ahead of people. JobPath has not been a success. The figures speak for themselves in that regard. Why is the Government insisting on moving to payment by results and on what is effectively the privatisation of our job activation schemes, which are community based? The local employment services and job clubs have existed for more than 25 years and have served with distinction.
I would not accept that characterisation. This is a tender to extend local employment services into parts of the country where they do not currently exist. It is an improvement and expansion of services. It is open to a local employment service in one county to tender for the contract to provide services in another county.
Payment by results is not a bad idea. It has proved its worth in other areas. There is considerable variation from one county to the next in the results that local employment services get. Some are very good and some are not so good. Payment by results makes a great deal of sense because it means that we reward the service providers that get the best results and do not continue funding those that do not.
As the Tánaiste is aware, there is a large backlog for driver theory tests across the State, with 25,000 appointments for June alone. I welcome the Government's commitment to start reopening the 40 centres on 8 June, albeit on a phased basis. However, my constituency is facing further disruptions to its already overloaded system due to the closure during the week of the driver theory test centre at Pierce Court, Paul Quay owing to a serious environmental issue. The closure will last for a few months or possibly longer. Will the Government consider opening a pop-up centre or other alternative immediately, as we are all aware of young drivers' need to get to work or college, particularly those in rural settings who have no other means of transport? This situation is leaving young Wexford drivers in a disadvantaged and stressful state.
I appreciate the need to get driver testing going again, both the theory test and the practical test. This is being provided for as part of the reopening that will occur across June and July. Approximately 40 more driving testers are being recruited.
I am not familiar with the issue at the centre the Deputy mentioned, but I will let the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, know that he raised it, as she has responsibility for this area. Perhaps she will be able to explore with Deputy Mythen and the other local Deputies whether there is a possibility for some form of alternative arrangement to be put in place.
I spent last Saturday morning filling potholes on a little local road near home. It is one of the 800 local improvement scheme, LIS, roads in County Kerry currently awaiting funding. This road serves a vital community purpose. It links two local roads and allows people to walk and cycle safely off the busy regional road. I acknowledge the work of the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, and her predecessor, Deputy Ring, in providing funding of more than €4 million to Kerry since 2017. However, we still require a significant amount of funding. Nationwide, thousands of roads like this one require funding. I ask the Tánaiste to help to clear this list sooner by increasing the funding available to local authorities to provide improved roads. Many of these vital roads link to local amenities, such as the sea and mountains, and are very important.
I am pleased to hear the Deputy is not the only Deputy in Kerry who fills potholes. I imagine he does not charge as much as the others, but I am sure whatever they charge is a fair price. The LIS is essential for rural Ireland in improving roads that are not taken in charge but are effectively public roads. Funding for it has now gone up to €10.5 million for this year, which is up 5% on last year. Since 2017, €68 million has been spent improving and restoring 2,400 roads throughout the country. As the Deputy said, much more could be done if there was more funding. I commit to exploring the reallocation of some capital funding towards the LIS that cannot be spent in other areas because of the construction shutdown. We know that some construction projects will be delayed, so we should perhaps repurpose and reallocate some of that money towards the LIS, which could be done quickly.
Leaving certificate students are preparing for their written examinations next week. They have been through a very difficult year or so, and have lost an awful lot of time, but have borne it with much dignity and commitment. I know from my experience of talking to them that they would have been very frustrated and disappointed by yesterday's news that the results will be out late, on 3 September, which is about three weeks later than usual. They have received no explanation for this. I was amazed that the Department of Education press release did not mention Central Applications Office dates. Can the Tánaiste give us some information on that? Specifically, can he guarantee that no students will lose places? I am particularly conscious of students studying outside this jurisdiction. A student in the Netherlands who needs to submit results to a university by 31 August was in contact with me; the course starts on 1 September and results will not be given until 3 September. Can the Tánaiste guarantee that students like that, and students in this jurisdiction, will not lose out on their places?
I agree that students and leaving certificate students have had a very difficult year. In fact, this year's leaving certificate students have had two years of disrupted learning as a consequence of the pandemic. The news that the results are coming late, in the first week of September, is unwelcome, but I understand that despite the best efforts of everyone involved it is the quickest it can be done under the new arrangements. I can certainly guarantee that nobody will lose their place in this jurisdiction as a consequence of that. I cannot make commitments in relation to other jurisdictions but issues will arise. The Deputy mentioned the Netherlands. An issue may arise for people applying for courses in Britain through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. We will do everything we can to iron that out and do our best to make sure nobody is disadvantaged.
The European Parliament agreed a position on the digital green certificate in April. The Oireachtas health committee asked for a technical briefing on how this legislation would impact on both domestic and foreign restrictions. We were told this week that we would not get a briefing. The committee had planned to meet on the week we are supposedly off. The cyberattack is obviously a problem that the Department of Health and the HSE will be dealing with for some weeks, but it has not stopped health legislation being discussed and passed in this House. When will the Bill to enact the digital green certificate be brought forward? Will time be given to the health committee and the Dáil to discuss and scrutinise legislation since it will have far-reaching consequences on freedom of movement?
I will have to check that with the Minister for Health. It might not require legislation in the House because it is a European regulation and, therefore, may have direct effect. Thankfully, the systems that issue the Covid and vaccine certificates have not been affected by the cyberattack so we should be able to issue the digital green certificate, at least for people who are fully vaccinated. It is a bit more complicated where people have had tests and gone to private laboratories and so on. I am not really sure about the legislative picture. I will get back to the Deputy on that when I know for definite because I do not want to misinform him.
I intended to raise the lack of child psychological services in my constituency of North Kildare, but news that Kildare County Council intends to close the playground in Kilcock next week, for 18 months, has me seeking urgent intervention. This playground is a lifeline to children and families, particularly children with additional needs, because it proactively and inclusively provides a temporary breather for these children while they are waiting for services. These families, and local schools whose autism spectrum disorder units also use the playground, are absolutely raging and the children are distraught. The whole community is shaking its head that Kildare County Council did not seek to relocate the playground while this was ongoing. We have a poor history of the treatment of children in this country. Where is the best interest of the child principle here? There will be no holiday for many of these children this year due to lack of money. Many children do not have gardens. What are they going to do when they cannot be brought to the playground? I urge the Tánaiste to get involved, contact Kildare County Council and tell it to stop this madness.
This is a matter for Kildare County Council rather than central government, but the closure of a playground for 18 months, without any alternative arrangements being made, sounds a very long time. It is not a matter over which we have any jurisdiction, but I will certainly make enquiries and ask Kildare County Council to look again at its plans.
Deputy Murnane O'Connor will conclude. I am going by a list in front of me. I will let the Deputy in but I was not informed of her question. I need co-operation from Deputies. That was not evident earlier this week. This is the last question.
The weatherproofing and outdoor dining infrastructure scheme, a capital grants scheme, is meant to upgrade and enhance street and public spaces. The closing date for the scheme was last Friday. This scheme is important for the hospitality sector and tourism throughout the country. Carlow County Council has identified two suitable locations, one in Carlow town and one in the rural town of Borris. My understanding is that Fáilte Ireland will be working closely with local authorities, but what is the timescale on that? When will the grant be paid? I ask that there is no reduction in funding. The grant was up to €200,000 and Carlow County Council applied for €195,000. I ask that there is no reduction.
I understand exactly where the Deputy is coming from. We want to improve our outdoor facilities so we can enjoy a safe outdoor summer. Everything from playgrounds and play areas to public spaces and hospitality venues should be able to operate outdoors. The grant is administered by Fáilte Ireland, which is under the remit of the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin. I am not really sure what the answers to the Deputy's questions are, but they are valid questions and I will make sure they are passed on to the Minister. I will ask her to respond to the Deputy directly.