Tuesday, 6 July 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
They are not agreed. Tomorrow evening, a finance Bill that, on the face of it, deals with Covid provisions will be considered in the House. The Government has tabled an amendment to the legislation to insert a section 15. The explicit intent of the amendment is to exempt investment funds from a stamp duty surcharge when they bulk-buy homes to lease back to the State. This action is despicable. It is clear that the Taoiseach has no intention of putting manners on these big investment funds. It is lost on nobody that whereas the Government affords tax breaks to these investment funds, it is giving damn-all to renters.
In fact, many would say that if you were a cuckoo, a vulture or even a seagull in the city of Dublin, you would have a better chance than if you were a young person, a worker or a struggling family looking to put a roof over your head. The Government has put up the white flag of surrender over Dublin city to these funds. The Government is a disgrace. What is worse is that it is proposing one hour-----
I asked for a debate at the Business Committee on the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, reform negotiations that are taking place at this vital time for Ireland and the future of agriculture, which we were discussing a minute ago.
I also want a full comprehensive debate in this House before we rise for the summer on the whole issue of the vaccine passports and the medical apartheid this Government now wants to implement and force on publicans and which will pit families against each other as to who has a vaccine and who has not. This is outrageous and we are not even going to have a debate on it. The Minister, Deputy Donnelly, can now sign whatever statutory instruments he wants to. We must have a full debate in this House as we are responsible to the people regarding this medical apartheid which is going to be implemented by this Government. It is a shocking situation and is happening without any debate or discourse in this House.
Over the weekend many pubs and restaurants desperately seeking to earn a few bob had their businesses washed out. We saw images of people trying to get shelter under awnings and umbrellas. Some pubs have been closed for 450 days. Today the Minister, Deputy Ryan, has said that hospitality may not reopen until possibly the end of August. This crisis has to be debated on the floor of this House. We cannot keep the democratic Parliament of this country away from the decisions that are being made on this critical issue.
The practice of guillotining critical debates is back with a vengeance, despite the Taoiseach's party in opposition often joining us in railing against the practice of guillotines. We have seen it on two Bills of critical importance, one of which is the Finance (Covid-19 and Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which includes the shocking amendment by the Government at the last minute to exempt vulture funds from a tiny and inadequate stamp duty being imposed on them, thus incentivising them to buy up houses and price out first-time buyers. Similarly we have a guillotine imposed on the Affordable Housing Bill, where this Government has notions of affordability that stretch up to €450,000, which prices are completely unaffordable for ordinary working people. We tried to amend those proposals to make affordable mean affordable and we have had a guillotine once again slapped down so that the Government can short-circuit debate and prevent proper discussion on these matters.
I object to the Order of Business on two counts. I support the Deputies calling for a full debate on vaccination and the decisions being made to discriminate on the roll-out of that and into pubs. I also object in the strongest possible terms that the Finance (Covid-19 and Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill will be allowed one hour's debate tomorrow night. Language means nothing, and if language means nothing, democracy means nothing. To cut that to one hour with a guillotine when the amendment alone from the Minister for Finance is three pages-plus beggars belief. The Government has no interest in open discussion or in getting the views of the Opposition. It is ramming through legislation with the use of the guillotine and I fundamentally object to it.
First, there is a very comprehensive and busy agenda over the next number of days to be deliberated upon and to get through. The Government wants to progress legislation and bring it to a conclusion before the summer recess. We are very clear about that. We have been pushing for this and very adequate time has been provided over recent weeks for a range of legislative items in respect of housing, in particular, be it the Affordable Housing Bill or the Land Development Agency Bill, and that remains the Government position. We want to conclude certain items and in respect of single amendments, and our contention is that adequate time is being made available.
There was debate last week on the Common Agricultural Policy, or in the past two weeks, which is my understanding.
My understanding is that there was a debate in the House on the Common Agricultural Policy and there was a reasonable expectation that such a debate would not be sought again given the fact there was a comprehensive debate already on it.
On the vaccine issue, which a number of Deputies have raised and which Deputy McGrath referred to as "medical apartheid", which is an appalling phrase to use - Deputies Tóibín and Connolly raised this issue also-----
-----the fundamental objective of all public health advice we receive is to protect lives and livelihoods. Do not forget that - through the Chair. It is up to Government to operationalise that and we are in discussions at the moment with the hospitality sector with a view to having a plan ready by the 19th of this month. There is a big challenge facing us in respect of the Delta variant, not just in Ireland but across Europe and indeed across the world. One only has to look at what is happening in South Africa in respect of the impact of the Delta variant to see how we have to take these things seriously and take them out of the divisiveness of the partisan political debate I have witnessed too often in respect of Covid-19 in this House.
The public health advice should be accepted in good faith. One can disagree or agree but you should not be casting aspersions and using language such as "medical apartheid" and so forth-----
-----when the only objective from the public health perspective is to protect people who are not vaccinated. Why would we want unvaccinated people to get the virus? Why would we want to throw caution to the wind? Is that okay? Is that what we are actually saying, if you look at the counterargument?
Cathal Berry, Colm Brophy, Richard Bruton, Joe Carey, Jack Chambers, Barry Cowen, Cathal Crowe, Cormac Devlin, Stephen Donnelly, Paschal Donohoe, Alan Farrell, Frank Feighan, Peter Fitzpatrick, Brendan Griffin, Neasa Hourigan, James Lawless, Josepha Madigan, Micheál Martin, Steven Matthews, Paul McAuliffe, Fergus O'Dowd, Pádraig O'Sullivan, Marc Ó Cathasaigh, John Paul Phelan, Matt Shanahan, Brendan Smith.
Pat Buckley, Sorca Clarke, Catherine Connolly, Réada Cronin, Marian Harkin, Michael Healy-Rae, Alan Kelly, Gino Kenny, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, Mary Lou McDonald, Mattie McGrath, Denise Mitchell, Imelda Munster, Louise O'Reilly, Ruairi Ó Murchú, Róisín Shortall, Duncan Smith, Pauline Tully, Jennifer Whitmore.
On 21 June, the Minister for Health gave us a commitment that by the end of that day every hospital would have the same rules for partner visits, including access for the full duration of labour. Despite claims by the Taoiseach and others that the situation in our maternity hospitals and units had been resolved, clearly that is not the case. I have been contacted recently by dozens of people about their personal stories. They all revolve around the fact that a woman cannot have her partner present for the entirety of labour. Instead, she labours on her own. There are also stories of partners being asked to leave approximately an hour after birth, just when any new mother will need her rest most.
Women are watching and they see society reopening. They are very stressed at the thought of facing the pain, worry, anxiety and challenges of labour and childbirth on their own. The Government's guidance needs to say that partners are not visitors and recognise that they are an essential support, in line with what the Chief Medical Officer and the World Health Organization have said. The Taoiseach needs to stop treating this issue like it is sorted, and get it actually sorted for the full duration of labour and after birth.
That is Government policy. The Government has made it clear, particularly given the extraordinary success of the vaccination programme in the hospital setting and the very low rates of transmission within hospitals, that partners should be facilitated with absolute access in maternity wards and for scans and so on.
It is extremely important that the guidelines that have issued from the HSE and from the national clinical director would be applied in all maternity hospitals. That is the clear position that has been articulated from the top of the HSE and the clinicians on the ground should implement that.
Will the Taoiseach confirm to the House whether the new revised national development plan, NDP, will be published before the recess next week? Along with other Deputies and Senators from Tipperary, I had a meeting with Tipperary County Council yesterday evening where there was deep concern that the N24, a very important strategic corridor supported by all the local authorities, could be jettisoned. It is in the national planning framework, the southern regional authority and all the county development plans. This is an incredibly important project. It opens up the south east and the mid-west and has huge strategic value for investment and a whole range of other things. There is a story going around that it might be jettisoned as a result of issues relating to Tipperary town, which has suffered so badly from heavy goods traffic. It seems that a small bypass will be put in there instead of continuing on the strategic corridor, which is critically important.
My understanding is that the NDP will not be finished before the recess. Some further work must be deliberated on. It is very close to finalisation. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is in discussions with line Ministers across different Departments, which the Deputy will be aware of given his previous experience. In particular, he is in discussions with the Minister for Transport on the full range of transport initiatives from public transport to roads. He is also in discussions with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage because there will also be a significant housing programme as part of the housing for all strategy. I refer to the construction of social and affordable housing and the development of cost-rental housing on a very significant scale. Therefore, the NDP wants to encompass the very substantial step changes in policy that will result. I am aware of the strategic importance of the N24 as a strategic corridor. I will relay that to the Ministers.
The Taoiseach may say that it is Government policy that the maternity restrictions have been uniformly applied across the country but that is not the case. I have reams of emails from women who state that within the last two weeks, they still have been unable to have their partners with them for their entire labour, they still have had to endure and go through the traumatic experience of miscarrying alone and they still have not received the support they need after caesarean sections when they have had to look after their babies by themselves. There is a huge disconnect between what is happening with women's lives and what the Taoiseach here in the Dáil believes is happening. Will he please listen to the women and believe their stories? I understand the HSE is surveying the hospitals at the moment to find out what restrictions are in place. The time for surveying is over. The Taoiseach needs to listen to and believe women who are telling him that there are restrictions on the supports they are getting during their pregnancy care and he needs to sort it out.
I did not say that at all. The Deputy should not make innuendo and wrongly imply what I said. What I have said, repeatedly, is that the national clinical director, the CEO of the HSE, the Minister for Health and the Government have said that there should be no restrictions. I acknowledge, because I am getting feedback from Deputies that they are getting feedback from constituents and people who have had experiences that are contrary to the policy, that there is an issue of clinical autonomy-----
There is an issue on the ground locally. I believe what people are saying to me. It should not happen. No one should have to go through a miscarriage on their own. That is appalling. They should not have to. If the Deputy can send me on the emails, I will pursue them with the HSE.
I raise the matter of students who were in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, last year. There are now difficulties when they apply for SUSI grants. Some have had reductions in their grants, some have had their qualifying income completely disqualified and some have had to defer their courses. This is putting a lot of stress on students for September. What is the Government doing to mitigate the plight of students who have been discriminated against because they were in receipt of PUP last year? They accepted the PUP, and that is fair enough, but now they will be punished when they need SUSI grants in September.
The PUP, in some respects, reflected what people were earning. It represented an unprecedented support of students because it would have been the first time they received welfare payments from the Department of Social Protection. The PUP was an exceptional payment in the context of the pandemic. It still represents a very unprecedented support of students by the Government over a prolonged period. If the Deputy has cases where the PUP may have put people over the threshold, he might forward them to us so we can get an idea of the extent of the issue.
Generally speaking, the PUP rate was reflective, although not totally, of what a person was earning. A person might even have been earning a bit more, which would have caused him or her to be above the threshold, if what the Deputy is saying is the case. We can follow through on individual cases and assess the extent of the problem.
The Taoiseach referred a number of times this morning to the success of the joint procurement agreement, JPA, for vaccines in Europe whereby Ireland receives 1.12% of European supplies. Could I ask him about the proposed purchase of 1 million doses of the Pfizer mRNA vaccine to be sourced directly from Romania? The purchase of this vaccine will be outside of the JPA. What oversight or allocation of resources is he considering to secure the integrity of the cold chain supply? This vaccine has to be kept at between -70°C and -90°C. There is a significant logistical difficulty in getting this done, not to mind the clinical validation of the supply. How does the Government propose to manage the process?
The President of Romania was anxious to help and has responded with this offer. The Danes did something similar in recent weeks and secured supplies, bearing in mind the logistics identified by Deputy Shanahan, which I had identified as having to be fulfilled in terms of the cold chain supply and the corresponding logistics. That work is ongoing between the HSE and departmental officials in respect of the follow-through and the agreement in principle arrived at on Friday.
I asked the Taoiseach some months ago about An Taisce appealing decisions of the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, An Bord Pleanála and Kilkenny County Council regarding the Glanbia plant in south Kilkenny. The plant is badly needed, as young farmers have big commitments and borrowings. There have been three challenges in the High Court to date. Will the Taoiseach do something to get the An Taisce monkey off the backs of the people? It is getting €6 million in funding every year from all kinds of sources. There is now a rumour that it may appeal to Europe. This plant will be lost. It involves a high-end plant with 120 jobs and is a massive construction project. Above all, we are transporting milk from the south east all over the country, even up to the North. Where is the carbon footprint there? We must deal with An Taisce. I know the Taoiseach's intervention last year was very helpful. Something must be done. Either the Taoiseach or his Ministers must meet An Taisce and ensure its status as a prescribed body is removed or it is banished altogether because it has outlived its usefulness and it is destroying people's lives.
I made my position clear on this project, which is a very good one and is very important for the region in respect of the creation of jobs, but it will also provide welcome diversification given Brexit and the need to bring more diversity into cheese products. It is a joint venture with Royal A-ware, a specialist cheese processor in the Netherlands and Belgium, which would be very advantageous to our farmers, many of whom invested on the basis of this project coming through. The project is in the judicial process so I do not want to comment.
I know, but I still do not want to comment on what may transpire, other than to say, as I said previously, that people need to look at all of the issues with balance and perspective, in particular in terms of the economic development of the region.
Tá seirbhísí faoisimh á ardú agam arís, nó bheadh sé níos cirte easpa seirbhísí faoisimh a rá. Ní thuigim cén fáth nach féidir na seirbhísí faoisimh a chur ar ais. Tá daoine ag fulaingt ar an talamh. Táimid ag caint faoi rochtain do thithe tábhairne ach ní féidir seirbhísí faoisimh a oscailt.
A year and four months after we declared a pandemic, in a time when we are allowing people into pubs and restaurants and doing our best to facilitate that, we are making no progress with respite services.
Aontaím leis an Teachta faoin tábhacht a bhaineann le seirbhísí faoisimh, agus admhaím go bhfuil easpa ann faoi láthair. Is gá iad a thabhairt ar ais agus seirbhísí faoisimh a chur ar fáil. De réir dealraimh beidh siad ag teacht ar ais diaidh ar ndiaidh agus beidh mé ag caint leis an Aire Stáit, an Teachta Butler, ar thaobh amháin den scéal agus an tAire Stáit, an Teachta Rabbitte, ar an taobh eile.
I will be talking to the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, about elderly care, day care, respite and Alzheimer's services, which are being restored gradually. The same is the case with respite care for disability services, which is also being restored gradually. I will get the up-to-date position for the Deputy from both Ministers of State.
Shortly after the Government was formed, one of the first Bills to pass through the Houses was the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill. As Chair of the justice committee I was delighted to prioritise its passage and ensure it got speedy progress and has since become law. I am sure the House will agree it is badly needed for cyberbullying and online harassment. Indeed, Coco's Law refers to the young lady who took her life as a result of such abuse, and the law was badly needed. However, I am beginning to get reports that when complainants present at Garda stations to report incidents, they are told that the law is "not really applicable yet". Will the Government ensure the Garda force has the resources, training, knowledge and wherewithal to enforce what is now the law of the land? It is a criminal law passed by the Oireachtas. We have done our job and the Government has done its job. If there are any gaps in terms of Garda enforcement, they must be addressed as a matter of urgency so that the law of the land can be implemented and these important protections can be safeguarded.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. He has been a consistent and very powerful advocate for a law in this area for some time. He has contributed to the work of the Parliament in a very informed way, resulting in the passage of this legislation. I will follow through in respect of its implementation on the ground. It would concern me if complainants were getting that type of response. Therefore, I will engage with the Minister for Justice in respect of the operationalisation of this legislation and find out what are the issues on the ground and the needs the Garda may have identified as problematic in terms of resources or for whatever other reason. I will come back to the Deputy in that regard. I acknowledge his consistent advocacy on this issue.
I understand there are four Departments and two agencies working on the production of the appropriate software for the digital green certificate, which I know the Taoiseach has committed will be ready for the 19th of this month. Late last night it was suggested that the domestic certification for indoor dining could be paper-based. Surely the State will be in a position to use what it has learned from the process of producing the app for the digital green certificate to apply domestically in some way, shape or form rather than have an entirely paper-based system. Given we are vaccinating 1 million people per month in addition to the millions already vaccinated, it seems particularly odd that we are going to be operating a purely paper-based system for domestic certification, if that is what the Government intends to pursue.
In the first instance, we must be careful of pre-empting the outcome of the discussions between the hospitality sector and the Government and conflating the two issues in terms of travel and the digital Covid certificate. The latter has taken considerable work and has presented many challenges given the various sources of information – vaccination, disease recovery and PCR testing, which are three aspects of the travel certificate. That said, we are on track in terms of bringing that in for the 19th in line with the European Union framework for travel.
Up to recently, the Government position was we did not want to utilise vaccination certificates for access purposes to domestic facilities or amenities. The NPHET advice has been clear in respect of indoor hospitality and indoor dining. Its belief is that fully vaccinated people or those who have recovered from Covid represent the best and safest way of facilitating the reopening.
The Taoiseach may be aware that the Owenacurra health centre in Midleton is to close in October. With the current Covid crisis and the hacking of the HSE, it has been very difficult to get answers.
Is there any way the Department of the Taoiseach or the Department of Health could find out what is going to happen with that centre when it closes in October? Nineteen long-stay patients will be relocated and every other service will be lost. It is a very big site and people are very worried and want to know what is going to happen to the site. Will the services return and, given there are job losses, will they be replaced? I cannot get answers anywhere so where do I go?
That is a very specific case of a specific facility, and I would not immediately have the answers. I can approach the HSE in that respect, although I do not know if the Deputy has approached the HSE or the management on the issue. I will follow through and endeavour to get an answer.
I would like to raise the issue of rare diseases and orphan drugs. This is an issue which the Taoiseach would have a lot of experience of, having served as Minister for Health and given his engagement with the Orkambi case. Today, Senator Malcolm Byrne, Senator Fiona O'Loughlin and I launched our Health (Pricing and Supply of Medical Goods) (Amendment) Bill 2021, which is essentially a replication of former Deputy John Brassil’s work in the previous Dáil. The Taoiseach is well aware of the issue that, on average, people are waiting up to 1,000 days to get an orphan drug approved for reimbursement. It is generally acknowledged that the process is not working, is not fit for purpose and needs to be looked at. I ask that this legislation would be given priority in the months ahead.
I thank the Deputy for his initiative in bringing forward this legislation. The whole area of rare diseases and orphan drugs is an important one, and there has been significant investment in research at European Union level under the Horizon programmes. There is a need here in terms of our pricing frameworks to facilitate the research and development that goes into orphan drugs in particular, which are very important for rare diseases but ordinarily would not command the necessary critical mass to facilitate the kind of investment that goes into conventional drugs. This legislation will facilitate a very important debate on this but also follow-through from Government. We will work with the Deputy and Senators Byrne and O’Loughlin on this initiative.
At this point, we have completed a series of pilots, which to my knowledge have generated no Covid cases, at sporting events, entertainment events and so on. The last of the pilot events is occurring this week. Are we now in a position to make decisions about a more permanent approach to these open-air events, where it would appear people can safely assemble, having had tests or having been vaccinated?
It is a very fair point. We have had a number of events and, from what I can gather, most of the outdoor events, and indoor events as well, have been well run. An evaluation is taking place and further decisions will be taken in respect of lessons learned from those events and how we can apply those lessons to further events, both outdoor and indoor. Obviously, we have to take on board international developments as well. Again, you can get a sense, in terms of what is happening in the United Kingdom, that when there are very large events with large crowds, it can go wrong too, as in regard to the England-Scotland game, for example, and the Scottish authorities are clear that had a significant impact on Delta cases in Scotland. Some of that is the travelling to and from the event as opposed to the event itself, but again there are lessons to be learned from that. Our levels have been quite low, to be fair, in respect of all of these events, so I think it lends itself to further analysis and evaluation with a view to expanding and moving on.
The Taoiseach’s party made a general election promise to hold an independent inquiry into the historical use of sodium valproate, or Epilim, which, as the Taoiseach knows, is a drug used to treat epilepsy. Many children have suffered devastating neurological disabilities because their mothers were taking this drug. The Taoiseach promised to do this. I asked the Minister one year ago and the most recent response from the Minister to a parliamentary question, which was just two days ago, was that his officials were still looking at this issue. The health committee recommended in 2018 that we hold an inquiry. I ask the Taoiseach to do all in his power to ensure this independent inquiry is set up immediately.
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. I will go back to the Minister for Health in respect of it and see what proposals are coming forward. There has been a lot on in the health arena in the past year, as the Deputy knows, and it has been non-stop in respect of Covid and many other issues. I will pursue the matter with the Minister and get the latest update.