Wednesday, 14 July 2021
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
This afternoon, the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, will set out plans to introduce an amnesty for British soldiers who went on to the streets and gunned down innocent civilians in Derry, in Ballymurphy and beyond. This is an amnesty for state and non-state actors who acted on behalf of and in collusion with the British state. These are people who always believed they would never be held to account for their actions and that the truth behind Britain's dirty war in Ireland would remain forever hidden by the British state. It turns out they were right. This is an insult to victims and their families. It is an act of absolute bad faith on the part of the British Government. It has left victims, survivors and their families believing this is a fait accompli and that this unilateral action from the British Government means the Stormont House Agreement has been binned.
The position of the Irish Government, which is shared by all of the political parties in Northern Ireland across the political spectrum, along with all the victim groups also, is that a unilateral move away from the Stormont House Agreement and the introduction of what amounts to a general amnesty for all security personnel and all paramilitaries for murders and other crimes committed up until the Good Friday Agreement is not the right way to go. It is wrong for many reasons. I have stated this consistently. I do not believe in a general amnesty for those who committed murder, whether they were state actors or involved in terrorist or illegal organisations. I just do not believe in that. We have consistently said this. The Deputy knows that at the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, there was an agreement to continue engagement with all parties and victims' groups on these issues. As the Deputy also knows, this process has started. The British Government may be setting out its position but our position as an Irish Government, shared with all of the political parties in the North and all of the victims' groups, remains consistent with that of the Stormont House Agreement.
As the Taoiseach knows, I have two young children, Aoibhe and Senan, aged ten and 11. I committed to asking the Taoiseach a question today on their behalf following a conversation I had with them. What is the public health advice that says it is okay for them to go into a pub next week but they cannot attend their indoor summer camps? I would like to know what it is and how scientific it is. Over the summer, the children of people who are staying in hotels where there is a summer camp can attend it but children living outside of there cannot. It is not rational. I am not criticising; I am just asking the Taoiseach to reconsider this very quickly. Legislation will go through the Dáil today. It is complex and, in a way, incoherent legislation but parking that, will the Taoiseach please look at this issue? There has to be a degree of common sense. Not all children are into outside sports.
We always keep these issues under review. I appreciate Aoibhe and Senan asking these questions. The public health advice has been that indoor events are problematic. I would say to everybody in the House that the numbers are rising. We will know today that the case numbers are rising, as are hospital numbers. We saw what happened in the Netherlands, where the Government has had to apologise for reopening too quickly. We see what the French Government is now saying on requiring vaccination passes for access to hospitality. This is a fast-moving situation. We have cautiously but assuredly reopened much in our society. I remember saying at the beginning of the summer that it would be an outdoor summer. We have made progress, perhaps faster than we would have anticipated. We have opened large sectors of the economy and society.
The Government has committed to spending at least €1 billion to lease 2,400 homes from investment funds. It would be much more cost-effective to build new homes. This would also create new supply that would mean the State would not be competing with first-time buyers and pushing up prices by doing these deals with investment funds. The Institute of Professional Auctioneers and Valuers has said the State should seek 50% discounts off full market rents when agreeing long-term leases of houses. Instead, the State seeks discounts of only 10% and sometimes as little as 5%. We know that in some cases an independent valuation of market rents has not actually taken place. Why is the Government handing over to investment funds almost double the amount recommended by industry sources? When will these sweetheart deals with investment funds be ended?
A core part of Government policy is to build houses and not lease them. This will be reflected in the Housing for All strategy. In the interim period, we need to wean off the degree to which leasing has been used. Up to 2,500 houses over the next 18 months can be provided through this mechanism for people on social housing lists. We do need to get people off the social housing lists and we need to get houses for them. We cannot wave magic wands here. Earlier, Deputy Boyd Barrett went on about how many people are on the housing assistance payment. We cannot just take people off the housing assistance payment and provide them with houses tomorrow. We have to look at every available option to provide housing. The bulk of resources will be on social and affordable housing and investment in infrastructure to facilitate affordable housing. The private sector also has to get going. Dublin City Council was one of the leaders in this regard with regard to developing this mechanism.
I asked the Department of the Minister, Deputy Foley, a question. I received the answer this morning and I was alarmed by it. The question was whether the Department of Education would give some guarantee to schools that they will be provided with CO2 monitors before they return in August. Wait until I give the Taoiseach the figures, which are quite startling. I have been told a number of portable monitors will be distributed to schools in August and September. Between two and 20 will be provided at primary level. We have more than 3,200 primary schools. Between 20 and 35 will be provided at post-primary level. We have more than 725 of these schools. This is an appalling reaction to a situation where we do not know where the pandemic is going. We do not, cannot and perhaps should not vaccinate children. We are certainly putting hundreds of teachers who are at high risk at further risk. A friend of mine was forced back to teach in a secondary school by Medmark although she was at high risk. She is now suffering very badly with long Covid. Will the Taoiseach please explain to me the appalling response of the Department-----
The CO2monitors are recommended for schools. The working group has recommended them.
The Minister has committed to providing CO2monitors to schools across the length and breadth of the country. I have not seen the reply the Deputy referred to, so I do not know the context in which she is quoting the figures.
I have not seen it. I have spoken to the Minister about this. CO2monitors are important and the Minister is committed to providing them to schools. That is it.
Community pharmacies are now actively involved in the vaccination programme. It is great to have them on board. The House appreciates that community pharmacies have significant latitude and autonomy in terms of whom they vaccinate first. That is entirely as it should be. Has any consideration been given to asking community pharmacies to prioritise indoor hospitality workers, particularly in the light of what is coming down the tracks in the next week to ten days? We are not looking for a rigid set of rules or anything like that, just some general guidance on how they can exercise their flexibility and discretion appropriately. The matter is worth considering and I would be grateful for the Taoiseach's thoughts on it.
I appreciate the motivation and intention of the Deputy in this regard. Generally speaking, the response has been very positive in respect of applications for the Janssen vaccines at community pharmacies. That is the feedback we are receiving. There has always been a difficulty in endeavouring to differentiate between one sector or group and another. The key issue here is that the roll-out of the vaccination programme in community pharmacies is going very well. Within than framework, it should be possible to cover a lot of people working in the sector to which the Deputy referred.
The Irish Farmers Association, Farm Contractors Ireland and many farming families are outside protesting today because they are not allowed to cut timber. The price of timber for contractors and people building houses has gone through the roof. Will the Taoiseach please ensure that the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, takes her hands off the steering wheel and allows the farmers who committed to put in forestry - and the contractors who have millions of euro worth of machinery to do business - to provide the sawmills with timber and provide people with timber to roof their houses and everything else? We are importing timber, which is nonsensical.
The Minister of State was not elected to government; she was appointed to the Cabinet and she is hell-bent on destroying this sector. The Taoiseach sacked Deputy Cowen, who would have done something for rural Ireland, as Minister. This has gone beyond a joke. A Bill was passed in the House last year and it has been useless, toothless and fruitless. We need action because nobody will plant a tree if they are going to be blackguarded in this way. They are waiting for felling licences but there is a backlog in the Department. This is what I call State terrorism. The State is blackguarding these people who made commitments. The Taoiseach needs to do something about it.
I regret the degree to which the Deputy has personalised this against the Minister of State, Senator Hackett. It is all wrong to refer to her destroying Irish forests. The Deputy should really cop on.
The Minister of State is doing the opposite. She wants to facilitate, streamline and get things moving in forestry. However, there has been a situation going on for quite a while, as the Deputy knows, because of objections that happened prior to the legislation being passed last year. We are very conscious that we need to move fast to get more houses felled, sorry, trees felled and new tress planted as well.
The Deputy knows that a huge number of additional staff have been allocated to the Department in that respect, including ecologists, forestry inspectors and administrative staff.
The last three months of 2020 were the highest months for licence output, with approximately 900 new licences issued. Licences for a felling volume of some 2 million tonnes issued in that time, which was 40% of the output for the year. There are improvements happening but they need to happen more quickly.
The legislation that is expected to go through today is the fifth major legislative provision on Covid restrictions that the Government has put through the House. This is the fifth time the Government has used its majority not to put forward its legislative agenda, which is legitimate, but to curtail debate and ensure that Opposition amendments will not even be considered. That is not legitimate and it is not democracy. It turns democracy into a tyranny of the majority. Deliberative assembly and deliberative democracy go out the window. At what point does civil disobedience become legitimate? There is obviously a point at which it does. The Taoiseach called for civil disobedience in the form of peaceful protests in Belarus last summer, in the teeth of a pandemic, to be allowed and respected, even though protests were banned by the Government there. At what point is civil disobedience acceptable and legitimate if democracy is not adhered to?
-----because there was a reference made to civil disobedience. I accept the Deputy's clarification. It is an important clarification because, obviously, we are not, in any shape or form, comparable to the Lukashenko regime. In terms of the Parliament, we want to achieve a balance here. There are people arguing for more liberation and saying we are closing down too much and have not opened fast enough.
On the other hand, we have to work through the public health advice we receive. It is in order to try to implement that public health advice in the context of facilitating the reopening of hospitality, and trying to get a balance in all of that, that the legislation is coming forward. That is what we are endeavouring to do.
There is a huge demand for affordable housing, which is in an increasing crisis with the rising cost of imported materials, such as steel, that cannot be supplied by the EU. Imports coming in from outside the EU are subject to a quota and also a 25% tariff. In this quarter, the quota for the quarter was exceeded on the very first day. A steel importer I am aware of had to be pay Revenue €300,000 on that day. There will be jobs lost, prices will go up and homes will not be built because people cannot get steel at the price at which they should get it. The only people who are benefiting are the mill owners in Europe. Will the Taoiseach please intervene with his EU colleagues to make sure the quota is increased in order that businesses which cannot get steel from the EU because their order book is full can import it without this huge tariff, which increases the price of housing and makes it more difficult for ordinary people to get their own homes?
The Deputy has outlined what is a very significant issue. It goes back, as he knows, to the United States applying a 25% tariff on steel originating from third countries back in 2018 and the European Union responding in terms of its market. This has been exacerbated by Brexit, with the UK becoming a third country since 1 January and being subject to EU safeguard measures. The measures that are in place allow for the importation of steel from third countries by way of quotas determined in line with traditional volumes of trade in steel. The current measures will be subject to a full review before 30 June 2023 to determine whether they should be terminated in response to market conditions of trade in steel at that point. That said, it is recognised that importers can face significant burdens, including administrative burdens, when trying to source materials from third countries where there is a limited commercial relationship between the producer and the importer.
Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle. The Irish people have never recognised or accepted Britain's claim to Rockall. Tonight, without any real debate, the Irish Government, led by a Fianna Fáil Taoiseach, will sign away Irish sovereignty and, with it, our historic fishing rights at Rockall. This is utterly shameful. At a time when the entire industry is fighting for its very survival, the action the Government is taking tonight will put the future of many fishing families on the line. We will not accept the ceding of Irish sovereignty to Britain. I am asking the Taoiseach to stand up for his country and intervene to stop this legislation going before the Oireachtas tonight. Rock on, Rockall, as the song says. It is the Taoiseach's time to do something about it.
That kind of sums up the shallowness of the Deputy's presentation. What he is saying is absolute rubbish. We are not ceding anything, particularly in respect of fishing rights. We are ceding nothing. It is just another game, is it not? It is just another slogan and just another approach, and it is consistent with the Deputy's approach on everything. I engaged with the fishermen of Ireland and their representatives. I am serious about it and I am going to do everything I possibly can to help fishers in this country. I am not going to be engaging in the silly, shallow sort of presentations that the Deputy engages in, pretending to be the friend of everybody but with absolutely zilch when it comes to substance on very serious matters that affect livelihoods. For God's sake, I think we need better than that.
I raise the issue of free travel passes. People, predominantly pensioners, who would not have any reason to believe there may be a change of status as regards free travel are being challenged as they board buses because their passes have expired. These are conscientious people who find themselves in awkward and embarrassing situations because their pass has expired. The Department of Social Protection has the details of the free travel passes issued to people. There is no reason for not extending travel passes or issuing new cards in advance. People have no reason to expect to lose their free travel passes. They typically realise there is a problem when they board a bus. While there is an expiry date on these cards, people do not expect problems. Can replacement cards be issued in advance of the expiry date?
I agree with the Deputy regarding what he has said. As he is aware, the Department of Social Protection suspended the issuing of letters to customers whose public service cards, PSCs, were due to expire from 20 March because of the closure of the Department's offices under the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions. However, an agreement with the National Transport authority, NTA, and transport providers is in place to ensure acceptance of expired cards in the interim for those availing of free travel. The Department has since introduced a telephone service whereby a person can have the validity period of their PSC extended by three years by calling an office of the Department or 1890 927 999.
In addition, the Department has recently introduced an online PSC renewal service, which is available via www.mywelfare.ie. PSC appointments have resumed in Intreo centres and branch offices since 17 May and an average of 1,000 appointments are being held each day. Additional resources have been assigned to this work to increase capacity. The Department is currently updating relevant communications to take account of new self-service options and intends recommencing notification of customers when the modifications have been completed. I thank the Deputy for raising the matter and I will liaise with him to pursue it.
Chronic underfunding in our health service left us on the back foot when it came to this pandemic. We recently heard that there is no date in sight for when a planning application might be lodged for the new accident and emergency department at University Hospital Galway, UHG. In the past two weeks, UHG has consistently been the most or second most overcrowded hospital in the State. We cannot return to pre-pandemic overcrowding in our hospitals. We know we have an infrastructural deficit in this area. What will be done to urgently combat this problem in Galway?
The investment will be provided and we are committed to it. I will get the details for the Deputy in that regard. I thought the Deputy said there was an issue with the planning application being submitted. Is that the case?
This Government and the previous Government have rightly said many times that Irish citizens in the North will not be left behind. Unfortunately, when it comes to full access to the EU digital Covid-19 certificate, that is exactly what is happening. A previous suggestion by a Minister that Irish citizens in the North, people living in the South who have been vaccinated in the North and Irish citizens living in Great Britain will not have full access to the EU digital Covid-19 certificate until phase 2 is simply not acceptable. As my colleague, Senator Currie, has said, that does not allow for full parity. When and what efforts will be made to expedite this process to ensure that all Irish citizens will have access to this vitally important EU Covid-19 certificate?
A total of 732 children in the State are currently in receipt of the home tuition grant. In most cases, this comes down to the inadequate number of school places for children with additional needs. Many children with additional needs have also experienced a reduction in their school timetables. While expulsions are rare in primary schools, with about 30 each year, they are excessively high in special schools or schools with special classes, according to figures compiled by Tusla. Pupils in special settings make up about 4% of the primary school population, but account for about 6% of primary school expulsions.
The mother of a 16-year-old boy with autism spectrum disorder, ASD, who was expelled last year for challenging behaviour has said she has applied without success to 15 other schools since then but no appropriate placement is available. The Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 gave the Minister for Education and the Department the power to compel schools to open special classes. A review of the operation of this provision is supposed to take place after three years. That must happen. This power must be used much more robustly to end the problem of admissions for children with additional educational needs.
I do not believe any child with ASD should be expelled from schools. Children and young people with autism should be supported and the necessary supports should be provided to facilitate their continued participation in education in an appropriate setting. It may emerge, sometimes, that a setting may not be the most appropriate, depending on where the child is on the autism spectrum. All schools should be open to providing places for children with additional needs. I have engaged with the Minister of State with special responsibility in this area, Deputy Madigan, the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, and the Department, through the relevant Cabinet sub-committee, regarding special education provision, with a view to increasing places and prioritising the needs and concerns of children with special needs. That remains a key focus of the Ministers responsible and the Government.
As the Taoiseach will be aware, a report on the proposed regulation of veterinary medicines was recently published by the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I have a copy with me. It contains clear commitments. These commitments and recommendations were agreed in a unified manner and received cross-party support. Many stakeholders in the industry also support these recommendations. When will these recommendations be fully acted upon and implemented? Time is running out. Thousands of jobs connected to the agri-merchant sector are at risk. I ask the Taoiseach to act upon these recommendations to ensure that responsible persons and pharmacists are allowed to continue to prescribe veterinary medicines. This issue is urgent and I have raised it a number of times. We are running out of time and I appeal to the Taoiseach again to act on these recommendations.
The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, will give consideration to this report. There was a working group on this issue. Prescribing is a serious matter, so obviously the Minister and the Department will have to give due consideration to the report. It is the intention of the Minister to work on the recommendations. If the Deputy engages with the Minister, he will bring her up to date on the state of play.
University Hospital Limerick, UHL, consistently has the highest number of people on trolleys. Yesterday, for example, 42 people were accommodated on trolleys in the hospital. That represents dire, abysmal and abject service provision in 21st century Ireland. We also know that this week 17 registrars and special registrars drafted a letter highlighting a series of concerns, including that the acute medical assessment unit is not fit for purpose and the only model for hospitals serving almost 500,000 people. This under-resourcing and overcapacity has been compounded by the facts that Shannondoc services, which were seriously curtailed, have not been reinstated and Ennis hospital is not operating the routine services that it could. One constituent of mine, who has been on a waiting list for a routine test since October 2019, was called yesterday and told that a referral will be issued for the Mater hospital in Cork. When will primary healthcare services in the mid-west region-----
The Deputy is probably in touch with the HSE in the mid-west. Extensive resources have been provided to the health service this year. They are unprecedented in scale and involve primary care, community-based care, diagnostics and acute care. There have been challenges in the mid-west, particularly in University Hospital Limerick. There is no doubt about that. The HSE is conscious of that and we will do everything we can to support the HSE in respect of alleviating the pressures in the hospital.
Regarding independent living, we are all familiar with the delays in accessing essential housing adaptation grants and works for people with disabilities. A constituent contacted me recently who had applied for a mobility scooter, as it had become increasingly difficult for him to leave his home unaided. He was told there is a waiting time of at least eight months. This man is now worried that he will, in essence, be made a prisoner in his own home without any ability to leave it. He is on oxygen. Will the Taoiseach agree that a wait of eight months is unacceptable? It is a long time to delay someone who is applying for a mobility scooter and trying to lead an independent life. Will the Taoiseach commit to radically reducing this waiting time? I do not know if this is just a local issue or one which extends across the State, but there is clearly a problem in this regard.
I accept what the Deputy is saying. There clearly is a problem there. We have provided resources but in these situations, there should be a far faster response in terms of equipment needs, aids and appliances. If the Deputy could send me on the details I will try to ascertain what is wrong. I do not disagree with what he is saying.
A report on water quality was issued today. It is clear that municipal authorities have a lot of money to spend on their infrastructure. I want to talk about organic waste from agriculture, especially from intensive farms. There is an awful lot of modern technology out there with modern methods to deal with this waste. I would be very critical of various Departments that have not embraced this technology. We need pilot projects across the country to show exactly what can be done as regards energy creation and creating an organic pellet fertiliser to spread on farmland, which will have a beneficial effect on water quality. This needs to be co-financed and driven by various Departments. As of now this has not happened and it must happen as a matter of urgency.
I thank the Deputy for raising what is a very important issue. He has a long track record in being innovative in this area and suggesting sensible technology-based alternatives that could help the overall situation with organic waste and so forth. I will follow up on this. There should be more pilot projects and finance and resources should be made available to facilitate projects of the kind the Deputy has advocated, both for intensive farming and agriculture more generally. I will follow up in that regard. I appreciate the points Deputy Cahill has made.