Wednesday, 30 June 2021
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
Last month, the practice of investment funds and cuckoo funds, facilitated by the Government, buying up family homes wholesale and pushing home buyers out of the market was exposed but instead of shutting down these practices in their entirety, the Government only took half measures and took no action whatsoever on apartments. We now know the Taoiseach was warned by a senior official in the Department of Finance that failure to stop these funds from buying up entire apartment complexes and exempting apartments from the tax increases would make it impossible for first-time buyers to enter the market. Yet, the Taoiseach has persisted with an approach that allows for the wholesale snapping up of apartment blocks, leaving many people in the hands of absentee corporate landlords charging extortionate rents. Why did the Taoiseach ignore the advice of these officials? Why has he taken this course of action?
The Minister for Finance is very clear on this in relation to the story in terms of an official in the Department of Finance warning the Government that exempting apartments bought by investment funds from a tax increase would make it impossible for first-time buyers to enter the market. We all know in terms of policy development, and for healthy policy development, that a range of opinions is offered and should be encouraged and nurtured in any Department or agency. Briefings, thoughts and insights are provided. It is a rare policy decision that has no potential drawbacks. That view was one of a number of views presented. However, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage had a different view, and a very compelling view, in respect of the decisions made by both Ministers at the time, in terms of the optimal way to deal with this. That was that if a higher stamp duty was applied to apartments, there was a risk that developers would exit from the apartment building market as such projects would no longer be viable and an important element of our future housing strategy would be lost.
I understand the Taoiseach had a very difficult decision to make this week with the Cabinet but I cannot understand why he did not set out as parameters for NPHET that it had to be based on EU law and could not be discriminatory. Two months ago, Deputy O'Dea asked the Tánaiste that we would not engage in apartheid with regard to a vaccine pass. On 22 February, the Taoiseach said we will always bring people with us. This is a move away from that. What the Taoiseach is doing is discriminating, particularly against 200,000 people under the age of 35 who work in the hospitality industry. We cannot have a situation where the vaccinated will enjoy their summer because the unvaccinated will serve them. It is preposterous. It is morally totally wrong.
The Taoiseach rightly often asks the Opposition what it would do differently. I will say it straight: we have Janssen and AstraZeneca vaccines that can be pushed out quickly for 18 to 29-year-olds. Pharmacies can do the Janssen vaccines. Will the Taoiseach consider that?
Can we at long last start using antigen tests as part of the solution to ensure we do not have discrimination against young people? It is time to use antigen testing. Everywhere else in Europe uses it. I cannot understand why we are not.
It is up to the Government to decide, having received advice. My view is we could not proceed on 5 July, based on the model. I hope the Deputy accepts that. We cannot proceed on that basis on 5 July.
Thank you. I appreciate that. Now we have to work with the industry on how best to proceed, including testing and other aspects which the Government might have to look at. We want to engage with the industry on that.
On vaccine roll-out, "Yes" in terms of Janssen. The HSE is working on that. We will operationalise the advice. AstraZeneca, AZ, supplies are not available immediately because we have to deal with the 60 to 69-year-old group and get them done by 19 July.
Despite all the promises and commitments from the Government and the Minister for Health on maternity restrictions, which are unfair, unethical and inhumane, they remain in place in hospitals around the country. Women still face their labour journey and suffer miscarriages without their support partners and deal with the after-effects of Caesarean sections without having supports in place. It is exhausting being a woman in this country. We have to fight again and again for things that should simply come as basic services. Will the Taoiseach tell us when this will finally be resolved? Who is in charge when it comes to maternity restrictions? The Taoiseach has repeatedly said they will be lifted across the country and it has not happened. Who has the final say on this?
This issue has been raised on numerous occasions in the House. In mid-May, the HSE advised that it had conducted a review of compliance in maternity hospitals units based on national guidance around visitations.
At that stage, 14 of the 19 maternity hospital units were fully compliant with the guidance. Last week, that number was 16 and I understand from a note I have to hand that the three remaining hospitals were to be fully compliant with current guidance by 21 June, last Monday. Consequently, we are being told they are all compliant. If the Deputy knows of hospitals to the contrary, I will gladly take that on board. We know who is on charge from a clinical autonomy point of view in terms of maternity hospitals. It is the masters in places like the Rotunda and the Coombe. The HSE has issued clear guidance to all maternity units. It gave a two-week period to require all hospitals to address all local logistical issues around the guidance.
The core issues around the national maternity hospital remain unaddressed. I do not believe the women of Ireland are reassured by recent statements and assurances from the Taoiseach and the Government.
Three years post repeal, we only have one in ten GPs delivering abortion services and about half of maternity hospitals. This is a huge issue for marginalised women and for women in rural Ireland. Some of the professionals who have spoken recently have been genuine in stating they believe all services will be available in the new national maternity hospital but that misses the core point. Aside from the ownership of the land, there is the question of governance and control. We now know four members of the board will be appointed by the new St. Vincent's Holdings and four by the new maternity hospital designated activity company, DAC, which will be a subsidiary of St. Vincent's Holdings. We have never seen the legal documents surrounding this issue and the women of Ireland need answers. We are hurtling towards a recess. This House will rise in about two weeks' time and the issue seems to have been dropped by the Taoiseach. We need an answer.
We have given an answer repeatedly on the services that will be available in the new national maternity hospital. All services women are entitled to avail of in this State will be available in the new hospital, without question.
That is a clear assertion I am making and it is based on agreements going back over two to three years, most recently in the documents the HSE and others have engaged on.
On governance, I have made my view clear on that and the Minister is engaging with stakeholders on stronger public interest representation on the board of the new hospital. That is important for a range of reasons.
In the programme for Government, it is stated that one of the main priorities will be health. Since the start of the pandemic, the Government has rightly dramatically increased the budget for health spending. I have supported this approach. I worry, however, that we are not getting a better long-term return on the increased spending. One of the main reasons we shut down society and the economy was to suppress Covid because we did not want our ICU departments overrun. I fully accepted and supported this approach. Can the Taoiseach confirm how many additional ICU beds are available in the health system as result of the additional spending on health? I would appreciate a simple comparison of the number of ICU beds available at the start of the pandemic, those promised in the programme for Government and those available now.
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. There has been a substantial increase in funding to health, particularly the winter initiative last year. There was a total of over €4 billion, the largest ever budget. It has yielded results, including 5 million home care packages over the winter period into this year. That has facilitated a greater flow. We have higher levels of activity in the hospitals than we had pre-pandemic in 2019. That is good news and means people are coming to our hospitals. We want to protect that. A concern in respect of the Delta variant is that it does not have an impact on what is essential in the restoration of normal, non-Covid health services. In the presentation to us last week, the HSE was strong on that.
There has been an increase in ICU beds. I will get the Deputy the exact numbers. There have also been increases in acute beds, as well as improvements in diagnostics, the transformation of the relationship between HSE and primary care and in terms of community-based care.
Has the Taoiseach any bit of shame or self-respect at all? He told us many times he would not have green passports. The illogical, alarming, Dickensian and apartheid decision to have vaccinated people go one place and others left outside is shocking. He is operating to an agenda that is clear for everyone to see. It is not an agenda for the Irish people, but for somebody else. If NPHET told him to jump to the sky, the Taoiseach would jump. When will we have an independent inquiry from abroad into the way NPHET handled this? The Taoiseach has just acted at its behest.
Why is the Government victimising the churches again? Nowhere in the statement yesterday or the paperwork does it say communions and confirmations cannot go ahead. Yet, Leaky the Tánaiste has said they cannot. This involves bishops and priests and good people, including Fr. Michael Twomey in my native Newcastle. Hopefully, Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan has said he will go ahead. It does not say it in the writing anywhere. Will the Government deny these young children, men and women their right to have confirmations again? They are planned in many areas and have been put back three or four times. The way the Government has treated religious people in this country is shocking. We listened for 60 years to calls for church and State to be segregated. Now the Government is controlling it.
My only concern and motivation is to protect people. I do not want to close anything down. Why would I or anyone want to close anything down? The reason is obvious: there is a pandemic and it has devastated people's lives.
In response to a question from Deputy Gannon last week about the proposal for a Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, TRIPS, Covid waiver at the WTO, the Tánaiste told the House that a TRIPS waiver was not enough to do what needed to be done and that the best thing we could do was to work together with industry to license this intellectual property to the global south and help to build the necessary factories and provide the money and know-how to do these things. There is a WHO initiative, the coronavirus treatment acceleration programme, CTAP, which tries to do exactly what the Tánaiste claims is needed. It was introduced in May 2020, but the Government and most of the pharmaceutical industry have still not endorsed it. Will the Government finally say that it will support a waiver and the CTAP? There is an urgency to get people in this country vaccinated, but there does not seem to be the same urgency about getting the rest of the world vaccinated, and that needs to happen for us to be protected.
First, the most effective way to get the world vaccinated is through licensing of technology and building up capacity and know-how in terms of the production of vaccines. The European Union has pledged €1 billion to developing production facilities and know-how in Africa so that Africa can begin producing its own medicines. That, to me, is a very sensible and pragmatic way of trying to give capacity to countries that cannot, as we speak, develop medicines or, indeed, vaccines.
Ireland is one of the countries in the world that has a very advanced state of knowledge and know-how in respect of medicine production, research and vaccines. I am delighted that the mRNA drug substance is now being developed at Grange Castle in the Pfizer facility there.
The pharmaceutical companies, as a result of this discussion, have pledged very significant amounts to developing countries and to poorer countries. That is extremely important. I think that Europe-----
Wind energy is an important renewable, but the guidelines governing wind energy and wind turbines are 15 years old. They are out of date and antiquated and do not reflect where the industry is at the moment. New guidelines are almost in place. They have been on ice since December 2019, but they will be issued to local authorities shortly. Crucially for residents, the new guidelines provide for a setback of 500 m from homes. It is important that we get them out immediately. In the interim, I ask that the Government issue guidance to all planning authorities that there be a moratorium on new applications that exploit the old system until the new guidelines are in place in a matter of weeks. A flurry of applications are being received. One in my community was before the High Court yesterday. Its turbines will stand 100 m tall, which is taller than Big Ben, and cast a shadow over local houses. We need to get the guidelines in place, but we also need a circular to issue to planning authorities in the interim.
I agree with the Deputy that the guidance should issue. I know that the Minister is close to finalisation of the guidance. It has been going on for quite some time, even longer than 2019, in respect of new guidelines for wind turbines and for renewable energy more generally. I will engage with the Minister in terms of accelerating the publication of those guidelines and interaction with the local authorities in respect of those guidelines.
I wish to raise the issue of the shortage of quality used cars on the Irish market and the difficulty this is causing consumers, who must pay more for cars than they are worth. Used car retailers are also experiencing severe difficulties trying to import cars from the UK, especially with the extra 10% tariff arising from Brexit. They must also pay the top rate of VAT. There have been VRT changes relatively recently as well. This matter spans a number of Departments. Will the Government take immediate action to examine the issue and see how policy can improve the overall situation? Perhaps in the context of the forthcoming budget, it could examine the issue of applying VAT to imported cars and whether the tariff could be scrapped or reimbursed to trader account number, TAN, holders so as to get the industry moving again and to support jobs, many of which are in small operators in rural communities who work hard and serve their communities.
This is one of the many consequences of Brexit. I saw during the week that the exports to the European Union of one third of UK companies had declined. The ramifications of Brexit on the UK economy are going to be sustained in the long term.
Regarding the Deputy's point, the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement has eliminated tariff duties on trade between the European Union and Great Britain where the relevant rules of origin are met. This means that, if an imported vehicle is of UK origin, there is no customs duty payable, as a 0% tariff rate applies. The following vehicles would not qualify as being of UK origin under the rules of origin, so a 10% tariff would apply: imported vehicles of EU origin used in the United Kingdom or vehicles of other third country origin used in the UK. Vehicles originally exported from the European Union to the United Kingdom that meet certain criteria may be eligible for returned goods relief under the EU customs rules, namely, the Union customs code.
We will continue to examine this and, as it settles down, we will try to get some progress on these issues.
We are in a race between the variant and the vaccine roll-out. We all want the roll-out to win. Yesterday, the Taoiseach stated that more people needed to be vaccinated more quickly. I agree and we all want to see that, but where is the plan? People were looking for a plan for an accelerated vaccine roll-out yesterday, but we did not see it. For the past number of weeks, we have been looking to have statements on the roll-out with the Minister in the Dáil. The Government did not provide the time. We have been calling for mixing and matching of the various vaccines for the older age cohorts, including those aged over 60 years. The Government is only looking at that now. Yesterday, we were told that we could have a two-tiered reopening of indoor hospitality, which would be problematic. Confirmations and First Communions have been paused, causing people concern. The route out of this is to accelerate the vaccine roll-out. When will we see the revised plan? We need to see it quickly. It is the key ingredient in whatever future plan is put in place to reopen hospitality.
The Deputy is having an each-way bet in that presentation. The vaccine programme has been very effective, I am sure the Deputy will agree. It has been excellently executed. The NIAC advice in respect of AstraZeneca and Janssen came in on Monday evening and was formally sent yesterday from the CMO to the HSE. The HSE has to work through that advice in terms of the implications, but it will be doing so very quickly in terms of AstraZeneca and the Janssen vaccines. We have Janssen in stock. The AstraZeneca vaccine is being used to make sure that everybody between 60 and 69 years and everybody who has had a first doze of AstraZeneca gets a second dose by 19 July. That plan is already in place. The next phase is to continue down through the age cohorts. Over 340,000 vaccines were administered last week. There will be a similar amount this week. As soon as we are getting them in, we are trying to get them out as quickly again. That is working. I have no doubt about the competency of the HSE and the task force to move on the remaining elements of this.
I wish to raise the important issue of cancer screening in light of the recent remarks by the Irish Medical Organisation, IMO, that chemotherapy and radiotherapy services were down by 30% and 20%, respectively, when those services should be increasing 5% per annum because of our age demographics and rising population. Will the Taoiseach commit to a strategy of public awareness campaigns to ensure that as many people as possible are encouraged to return to their cancer screening services and GPs in cases of suspected illness?
It is a very fair point that the Deputy has raised, although the rates are increasing and progress is being made in relation to the various screening programmes. The Government and the Minister for Health are, along with the HSE, working through and operating an awareness campaign and encouraging people to come back and avail of the screening programmes. That will continue. We will take the Deputy's views on board.
People all over the country are outraged by the Government's decision not to reopen the indoor hospitality sector and the insistence that people will have to be vaccinated before they can go into those settings. What is so different about pubs and small restaurants in the Twenty-six Counties compared with the rest of the world? They are open in the Six Counties. We seem to have more so-called scientists, professors, advisers and geniuses, yet we have no one with common sense.
Who does the Government think it is codding by meeting with representatives of the hospitality sector today when it had decided its fate yesterday? The Government wants to get a plan from them now because it has no plan for opening indoor hospitality. It never had one and it does not intend to allow them to open. George Lee said that it could be October before a decision is be made to open it up.
I have said repeatedly and consistently here that our objective is to protect people. Over the last number of months, we have successfully suppressed the virus in this country compared to many other countries.
Let us look at what is happening in Johannesburg, for example, because of the Delta variant. I am amazed at times. I recall being here in February and everyone was talking about maximum suppression of the virus and zero Covid, though not Deputy Danny Healy-Rae in fairness.
It amazes me that people quickly forget how devastating this virus can be on people's health. It amazes me that in a few months people quickly forget what happened in this country. We should never underestimate the potential of this virus, through various variants, to wreak havoc. We are in a better position because of vaccinations.
We will come out of this but we will do it in a steady way, as we have done over recent months. We have reopened the country and we will continue to do so.
I wish to ask the Taoiseach about the announcement made yesterday about the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, to only extend access to it for an additional week when we are in the most uncertain of times in relation to Covid. Work will continue to be uncertain throughout the summer months. I listened to restaurant owners on the radio this morning who are dependent on weather apps to see whether they can open for dinner on a given evening. People who lose work beyond 7 July, through no fault of their own, should be able to access the PUP. I do not understand why we are locking out new entrants to that payment. This is particularly important for young people who will not get a jobseeker's payment, like other workers, of €203. They will get a payment of €112.70. The very least we can do for these young people is ensure they will have adequate income when they lose work through no fault of their own. Will the Government maintain the PUP at the current rate, keep it open until at least the autumn and then review it, to ensure young people do not suffer further regarding this?
We extended the PUP and the deadlines in terms of new applicants in light of advice received on Monday evening regarding the Delta variant. We have done that, we have extended it which shows our flexibility in keeping these schemes under review. It has been an unprecedented intervention by the Government across the board in protecting jobs and supporting hospitality through the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, and through a variety of other schemes, in addition to the PUP in terms of students and young people. That also needs to be acknowledged.
Tourism continues to be a shining light throughout County Cork. Walking tourism in west Cork is worth €14 million to the local economy and is growing from year to year. There are some spectacular walks, including the Beara way, Sheep's Head way and Seven Heads way, as well as Mizen Head, to name but a few. Some 695 landowners, mainly farmers, maintain these west Cork trails for the public to enjoy and benefit from. West Cork Development Partnership has successfully administered this walks scheme for many years but it only has two part-time recreation officers to oversee up to 695 existing landowner participants. In a similar scheme in Leitrim, where 25 landowners are involved, there is, rightly, one full-time rural recreation officer to administer the scheme.
For the future of a successful walk scheme, be it the Beara-Breifne Way or other trails under the West Cork Development Partnership, at least four full-time rural recreation officers are needed. Will the Taoiseach work with the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, and the many County Cork Oireachtas Members who attended a Zoom meeting on the issue last Friday, to organise a meeting immediately with the aim of creating a solution to this?
I agree with Deputy Collins in terms of the beauty of those walkways and the fantastic amenities they provide to people throughout the country who avail of the incredible landscape around west Cork by accessing those walkways he described. I will talk with the Minister, in terms of engaging with Oireachtas Members, and with the county council.
I listened to the Taoiseach's response regarding the TAPS scheme for nursing homes. This money is to ensure continued rigorous infection control measures are in place, quite rightly, demanded by HIQA. Some €134 million was provided, but every cost under TAPS was itemised and approved by the HSE, so it is not extra or free money. That money is still needed to protect residents and workers in nursing homes.
The pandemic is far from over and saying that there are funds available if something happens is no good. We need to be proactive, not reactive. If Covid has taught us anything, it has taught us that. I will give the Taoiseach time to respond. Why is he withdrawing this funding from the nursing home sector where it is still needed?
It must be acknowledged that there has been a transformation in the nursing home sector as a result of the successful implementation of the vaccination programme. As we move through the variety of supports to different sectors, there will come a stage when we must move to investment mode in the future. We will work with the nursing home sector on the next phase of this. The provision of the outbreak assistance scheme gives an underpinning and security to the nursing home sector in the event of something untoward happening, such as a spike in cases in a given nursing home. So far, the impact on the disease of the vaccination of the over-65s cohort has been quite dramatic.