Wednesday, 15 September 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
I remind Members the House has agreed that, for the duration of the Covid-19 emergency, that the rapporteur's report will not be read out but will be taken as read. It has also been agreed by the Committee on Standing Orders and Dáil Reform that a single question shall be put on the business arrangements for the week. Where a member of a party or a group appears in order to object to the Order of Business, no further contribution may be made by any member of that party or group, any objection shall not exceed one minute, the Government shall make a single response to any objections, and that response from the Government shall not exceed three minutes. Therefore, the question is: are the proposed arrangements for this week's business agreed to?
They are not agreed. In June the Minister with responsibility for housing advised me in a reply to a question in the Dáil that the proposed shared equity scheme had been approved and passed by the Central Bank. We now have confirmation that this is not the case. In fact, we know the Central Bank and the, Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, have both criticised that scheme indicating it would potentially push up house prices.
I want the Minister with responsibility for housing to come into the House to make a statement and answer questions on why he misled this Dáil. He told the Dáil unequivocally and clearly that the Central Bank had approved and passed the shared equity scheme when no such formal approval had been given. The statement he issued on this today does not clarify his statements in the Dáil and why he told the Dáil that. I ask that he comes into the Dáil to answer questions on why he incorrectly misinformed the Dáil and said the scheme was approved by the Central Bank when it had not been.
It is good to be back. The big dark cave up on the Liffey kind of suited the Government. There are fewer places to hide in here.
No. 16 on the Order Paper is the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA. It gives power to corporations to sue governments for progressive policies. CETA must not go to a vote in this House without a proper prior debate on the floor of the House. Has the Ceann Comhairle sought assurance from the Government that there will be no attempt to slip this issue in during the business this week?
On the point Deputy O'Callaghan raised, it is important the Minister with responsibility for housing comes before this House. It is important we get to the bottom of why the Minister has misled the House about a flawed scheme, about which the senior civil servant in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform said it was being lobbied by developers because it would line their pockets and push up house prices. My colleague, Deputy Ó Broin, has clarified with the Central Bank that what the Minister put on the record of the Dáil was not true and that the Central Bank has not approved this scheme. The Minister not only misled the Dáil but also the people by appearing on "Prime Time" and reiterating that falsehood. With respect to the Government the Taoiseach leads, it is crucial he has the Ministers accountable to the House and that they are able to explain to this House and the public why this Minister continues to peddle this lie about a deeply false scheme that was lobbied for by developers and that will push up house prices.
I am objecting also. I want the Taoiseach to arrange for a debate on felling licences for forestry. We are talking about building houses. Merchants cannot get a stick of timber. The price of timber has increased by more than 100% and it is just not working. We need legislation that will empower people to cut their forests in the same way as you harvest any crop. When you set a crop of wheat, you are entitled to harvest it. It must be the same for forestry even though it involves a 30-year timespan. This nonsense of a licence is a joke. We are being held up with objections. We must change the legislation; otherwise we will never get a house built.
We need to bring the Minister for Health before the House as a matter of urgency to find out why the HSE has been so slow to recognise long Covid as a condition. It is estimated that there is somewhere around 35,000 people affected by long Covid, but during the past 18 months patients have found it next nigh to impossible to get doctors to believe them, even though this condition has been recognised by the World Health Organization.
The economic cost alone is in excess of €50 million and continues to grow yet our health service is not even counting the numbers. The physicians of patients with post-viral chronic syndromes most commonly refer them to the mental health services, suggesting that it is all in their minds. This is not good enough. This issue needs to be addressed immediately.
I will just say to Deputy Doherty that it is completely out of order to accuse any Member of the House or a Minister of misleading the House or the public in circumstances other than by way of a substantive motion. I ask him to temper his remarks on that matter.
I hope I will be corrected if I am wrong but it is my understanding that the word "lie" was used by Deputy Doherty. In the time I have been in this House, every time a Member has used the word "lie" he or she has been asked to withdraw it.
It is not in order to use such terminology. It would also be preferable not to accuse people of misleading the House, other than by way of substantive motion. Would Deputy Doherty care to withdraw the accusation of lying?
I have no problem withdrawing the accusation of lying but the substance of the matter is that the Minister did mislead the House. I stand over that. The serious question is whether the Taoiseach is again going to turn a blind eye just as he has with everything else. Is he actually going to lead in government? This cannot go on.
I will first make a point regarding the Order of Business. The Government wants to co-operate and engage with the House. I am very interested in seeing a balance that involves getting laws passed in the House rather than Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday being simply about general debates, general statements and Ministers coming before the House to discuss this, that and the other. We have Oireachtas committees. The Minister for Health has no problem coming before anybody to discuss long Covid. Our Order of Business session has not started yet. The Business Committee is meant to order the House and decide what is discussed on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday but we now see a new parliamentary ruse every week. Members say that they do not want the Order of Business, which they have just agreed a short while ago at the Business Committee, to proceed because they want X, Y and X to happen. If X, Y and X are to happen, we will have no time to do anything. Then there will be the genuine issue of rushing legislation at the end of the year. I worry about the balance of time between dealing with legislation and taking legitimate questions to ensure accountability. Do not get me wrong but our timeline is an issue. That is a general point.
Deputy Cian O'Callaghan raised a point. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has been very accountable to the House in respect of all issues pertaining to housing and legislation. Deputy Doherty said the affordability Act was a flawed measure. It is interesting that he did not oppose it. The Opposition party did not oppose the Affordable Housing Act 2021, which included the shared equity scheme. It huffed and puffed but did not oppose it. That is a fact. My point is that it was well debated in the House. I will talk to the Minister. If the Deputy wants the Minister to come before the House, I will talk to him about that-----
-----on a range of issues so that people can air their disagreement and so on. Deputy Barry raised the issue of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA. He said that we must not allow it to be slipped in. CETA has been on the agenda for years. There is no danger of it being slipped through. It has been before an Oireachtas committee for the last year. When we were in opposition, we had a Private Members' debate on CETA. It has been in practical de facto operation for three or four years. It will not be slipped through. I have no issue with a debate on CETA if it is requested. That can again be organised through the Business Committee.
As I have said to Deputy Naughten, there is no issue with discussing long Covid. I am sure the Minister will address the issue either before an Oireachtas committee or when taking questions here in the House. There is no issue with that. We take the matter very seriously by the way. I do not believe it is in anybody's head. It is a very serious issue that will be with us for some time to come.
Deputy Barry asked me about CETA. All I can say is that I have full confidence in his group's representative on the Business Committee, even if he does not. I am sure nothing will be slipped through.
Can I get clarification on whether the Business Committee can now meet to arrange for the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to come before the House? It is a very serious issue, as it always has been, for a Minister to mislead the House. He has also misled the public in repeating the accusation on "Prime Time".
I think we can sit a bit longer but that is up to the Ceann Comhairle and the other members of the Business Committee. A Minister has misled the House and the public after being corrected by Deputy Ó Broin and by a statement of the Central Bank. It needs to be dealt with in the House.
You might, but I will undertake to consult the Business Committee. After all of that, are the proposals for today's business agreed? Agreed. I will call Deputies on the Order of Business, with one minute for a question and one minute for an answer.
The Taoiseach said earlier, in response to Deputy Kelly, that Sláintecare has not stood still. Will he place on the record of the Dáil the reasons for the resignations of Laura Magahy, Tom Keane and Professor Geraldine McCarthy? Those are the Sláintecare implementation chiefs and the chair of the South/South West Hospital Group. Will the Taoiseach respond to the sense that, far from moving forward, health reform has slipped back? Has he spoken to these three individuals? I know the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, has spoken to at least one of them.
They have issued public statements. I have not met the individuals yet. The Deputy is incorrect in saying that Sláintecare has slipped back. The opposite is the case. Over €1.2 billion was allocated in the last budget.
In the public health area, consultants will be appointed for the first time ever. We committed to doubling the staff in public health and that is happening.
Just listen. It went from 7,000 on the waiting list in March 2020 to 1,400 in 2021 and the statutory home care legislation is coming. In the community diagnostics programme, some 70,000 scans have been carried out. Some €25 million was allocated to the GP access to diagnostics initiative. That is very important. There are 6,000 more people working in the health service than there were last year.
Critical care beds have gone from 255 to 296 and will be at 321 by the end of the year. Bed capacity has gone up 800. For the proposals in relation to elective hospitals, the business cases have been made.
I ask the Taoiseach about the comments of Judge Elizabeth McGrath in one of my local papers today relating to secure mental health facilities across the State. She has called it a scandal. The issue relates to a young man whose mother I spoke to today. She lives in fear. Her son spent four and a half months in jail because, as a State, we could not find a place for him in a secure mental health unit. They would not take him in Dundrum or in Cork so he spent four and a half months in jail. In the last 24 hours he has been sent to Ennis, from where he absconded before. People are worried about this young man because of his situation and what he will do to himself or potentially other people. This is a serious issue. We do not have enough places. There are people afraid in case he ends up coming out, breaking out like he did before and hurting people. What comfort can the Taoiseach give his mother, who asked me to raise this today?
I do not know the circumstances and am always loath to comment on the comments of judges but the point the Deputy has raised is a serious one. It is not good enough that any person is in jail who should be in a secure mental health facility. That is not satisfactory. I will ask the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Butler, to examine that.
I would make one important point. We need to be careful. I can remember a previous era when the courts were ordaining institutionalisation for young offenders, for example, which was the wrong approach, yet it was raised periodically in the Dáil.
Today we learned that 10,000 of the air monitors due for delivery in schools across the country are defective and now we have a scramble to see how quickly replacements can be found. The mid-September deadline will be missed, similar to the original deadline of the first week of September. The Minister, Deputy Foley, said at the end of August that the order was put in three months ago but there was international demand during a global pandemic that apparently could not be avoided. This has happened even though the Health Protection Surveillance Centre recommended the use of air quality monitors in classrooms back in October 2020 and the teacher unions were raising the issue of monitors in November 2020. When I asked the Minister about this in December 2020 in a parliamentary question, she replied that the Department "does not consider it necessary for schools to install such monitors in classrooms", but it was "a matter for individual schools to consider whether they wish to use some of their minor works grant funding for this purpose".
I wish that was the only issue but it comes on top of the fact that 12,000 children are not in school because of being a close contact. How many parents does that mean are being forced to stay at home?
I think that is the wrong perception. We have moved heaven and earth in trying to provide resources, last year for the return of schools and likewise this year. We need to be balanced and fair about this.
In terms of the specific question, 25,000 CO2monitors were ordered and will be provided to schools by the end of this week. This enables all schools to have some CO2monitors, with the full allocation of monitors in 96% of primary schools and at least ten monitors being provided to the other 4% of medium to large primary schools and in each post-primary school. The manufacturing delay the Deputy speaks of with the last batch of 10,000 monitors is outside the control of the Department of Education. However, progress has been made on sourcing alternative supplier options to minimise the delay as much as possible. Lennox Laboratory Supplies Limited is managing the detailed arrangements and logistics for the supply and distribution of CO2monitors to schools. The following is the expected position on the roll-out of CO2monitors to schools by this Friday, 17 September: at primary level, 96% of schools, including all special schools, will have received their full allocation of CO2monitors.
Fifteen minutes ago, the Taoiseach told the Dáil we do not want students living in hotel rooms. However, the Government has failed to stop students being forced to do precisely that. It is not just hotel rooms. In Cork city, 100 students are living in one hostel on Wellington Road at the moment. Officers of the student union in UCC tell us that more than 1,000 students have no proper place to stay. Student unions across the country are reporting significant numbers deferring their courses simply because they cannot secure accommodation. It would not have taken a rocket scientist to foresee this crisis. Student unions have been warning the Government for some time as to what was coming down the track and that the residential tenancies legislation and the change in regard to the colleges was not going to sort it for this year.
The Taoiseach seems to have swanned off on his summer holidays without taking action until it hit him straight in the face, and all he can say now is the dog ate his homework. What is he going to do, not in 2030 or next year but now?
I know. I am saying to the Deputy that the most effective way to do it is to build more houses, apartments and units of different types across our cities and towns to deal with the housing crisis, which has many manifestations, not least in terms of student accommodation.
Earlier this week, RTÉ broadcast the testimony of a number of extremely brave women who, in the service of the armed forces, suffered decades of sexual abuse, bullying and discrimination. These women have sought justice from within the Defence Forces but they said they met with systemic resistance every step of the way.
In 2017, a protected disclosure that detailed bullying, sexual abuse, victimisation and discrimination was sent to the then Fine Gael Minister for Defence. I understand no action has been taken. Shockingly, the current Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, has never met with the representatives of Women of Honour. This is incredible. Will the Taoiseach meet these representatives? Will he provide an amnesty to all those who have suffered sexual abuse, harassment or discrimination in the Defence Forces in order that they can tell their stories anonymously so that we can truly understand the size of this problem? Will he commission an independent and external investigation into abuse, harassment and discrimination in the Defence Forces?
First of all, I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. Women of Honour emailed my office yesterday, requesting a meeting with me, which I will facilitate. The Minister for Defence is also facilitating a meeting and I believe there has been interaction and he had offered a date. That is my understanding. He will be meeting the representatives. All members of the Defence Forces have a right to be treated with respect, equality and dignity and to carry out their duties free from any form of sexual harassment or bullying. We must facilitate the truth on this issue. I fully agree with the Deputy in that respect and I will do what I can to make sure that happens.
I found out from the reply to a parliamentary question tabled to the Minister for Health that €3.84 billion extra has been spent throughout Covid. The people of Carrick-on-Suir, east Waterford and south Kilkenny are bewildered as to why St. Brigid's Hospital was closed in the middle of a pandemic when all this money was being thrown around like confetti. I am asking the Taoiseach to meet the action committee, which he has not done, and to meet Councillor Kieran Bourke and other councillors in Tipperary. The Taoiseach is coming to Ardfinnan this week to see a troubled bridge over tranquil waters. Will he please make time to visit Carrick-on-Suir or to accept the invitation to meet the hard-working committee? Supporters of the committee will be coming to Leinster House next week in their bus loads with a petition signed by thousands of people who want to be treated in that hospital. They have faith in it, its staff and management and, indeed, the nursing care provided there. The Taoiseach has refused to meet them, as has the Minister of State, Deputy Butler. Will he please agree to meet that group during his visit to Tipperary?
First of all, the €3.8 billion was not thrown around like confetti. It was income supports for the people who needed income supports as they had lost their jobs because of Covid-19. It was to protect jobs in terms of companies-----
-----and in terms of health services badly needed to deal with Covid. It funded a whole range of measures, so it was not wasted money; it was important money in that respect. The Deputy is correct that I will be meeting people in respect of Ardfinnan bridge. Deputy Jackie Cahill asked me would I meet with them.
The issue of hospital waiting lists was one of many to be resolved by the implementation of Sláintecare. The implementation of Sláintecare was supposed to be in the Taoiseach's office. It is not in that office but it ought to be. I urge the Taoiseach to take responsibility for its implementation.
My question is more specific. One reason, although far from the only reason, for hospital waiting lists in the mid west in particular is the use of theatres at University Hospital Limerick, UHL. The rate at which the theatre was used was far below the target rate, which is approximately 85% internationally. It was at approximately 75% at the time of the most recent election. That obviously worsened because of Covid, which is not the fault of anybody. What is the rate of use now? Unless we can get theatre usage up to the optimal levels, waiting lists will not be addressed. That is true for UHL but there is also the issue of theatre usage in Ennis and Nenagh hospitals. I do not expect the Taoiseach to have those figures off the top of his head. If he does not have the figures now, I ask that he come back to me with them.
On the bigger issue, will he take responsibility for Sláintecare?
It is a very fair point the Deputy has raised in terms of theatre usage. That is why the development of elective-only facilities is crucial, so that we have theatres that are not impacted by trauma medical admissions and so on, which happens in the major tertiary hospitals. That is key. Proposals for three elective facilities will come to Cabinet in a short while in respect of Galway, Dublin and Cork in terms of new elective facilities.
However, even within the existing suite of hospitals, we should ring-fence elective activity so that we can get optimal use of theatre space for clinicians so that they can get these waiting lists down. We have approximately 75,700 on the inpatient day case list at the moment, 652,000 on the outpatient list and 33,000 on the diagnostics list. Covid has had a huge impact on that.
I ask the Taoiseach for an update on a proposal to extend the gas pipeline to Longford town from Ballymahon, where it currently services Center Parcs, under the climate change action plan. The council has made a submission for the extension to Longford town under the climate action plan and it is currently being reviewed. Local employers, including Panelto and Birds Eye, are keen to see it progressed as they are reviewing their energy usage and have plans for further development at their site. There are also imminent further expansions for both Technimark and Abbott Diagnostics in the immediate area, so it is timely and appropriate that the gas pipeline be extended to Longford town.
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. I understand the importance in respect of Longford and the major frozen food facilities there. I will talk to Gas Networks Ireland and engage with it. Obviously, in the first instance, the routing of natural gas pipelines or the connections to towns is its responsibility and that of the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, but the Deputy has made a very fair point. We will pursue that.
It is good to be back in the Dáil Chamber. I wish to raise the issue of mica and pyrite. At the moment, there are people coming to us in Limerick complaining of defective blocks. A working group has been established that is currently doing work with residents in County Donegal. I have requested that Limerick City and County Council make a submission to include Limerick under the defective block scheme, which covers both mica and pyrite. When will that working group conclude its deliberations? When will agreement be reached with the residents of County Donegal? More particularly, when Limerick residents become eligible for the scheme, will the same conditions apply as will apply in respect of the agreement the working group has with the residents of counties Donegal and Mayo, who are currently part the scheme? I refer to pyrite and defective blocks.
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage has been engaging with the working group in respect of developing a scheme. As that group has been meeting, other areas of the country have also signalled potential issues. As the Deputy will be aware, a submission from Clare County Council arrived in the Department at the end of July. That is being reviewed. He will be aware of the Limerick interest at this stage as well. All areas where this manifests itself will get consideration. It is hoped that these discussions can be brought to a conclusion relatively quickly.
Before the recess, the Dáil unanimously passed a motion calling for a permanent solution for our student nurses and midwives and for the publication of the independent report looking into the issue. My understanding is that the report could be with the Minister. If it is, it needs to be published. Those very same student nurses and midwives are going to be starting their placements again. Indeed, some of them have started. The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, has called for fourth years to have their pay restored to 80% of the entry level of a staff nursing position, which should happen, and a bursary for first-, second- and third-year students. A permanent solution needs to be put in place. I ask the Government to publish the report, implement whatever recommendations it makes and ensure that there is a negotiation with the INMO and a fair solution put in place for student nurses and midwives.
As Minister for Health, I introduced a new nursing degree programme, which was a transformative development in nursing education. The idea was to free up nursing for education purposes. We developed new facilities in universities and institutes of technology across the country. Whatever we do, we must not damage that education space and aspect of undergraduate and postgraduate nursing education. I will talk to the Minister for Health in respect of where the report is now. Of course, we will publish the report and it will come to Government for decision and consideration. We will keep in touch with the Deputy on the matter.
We are running out of time. I will take the questions from all the other Deputies if they confine them to 30 seconds each. Are they amenable to that?
Yes. I was not sure whether I could contribute on an issue already raised. Deputy Tóibín has spoken already about the Defence Forces. I wonder why the Government is establishing an independent review into the abuse allegations - the terms of reference and nominations are being finalised this week - when there has been no engagement with those involved in the "Women of Honour" documentary or any other survivors of sexual abuse in the Defence Forces workplace.
I want to raise the question of the early childhood education sector, which is in deep crisis and haemorrhaging staff. There are commitments in the programme for Government regarding an employment regulation order and a new type of model. I want to ascertain when these will materialise because the crisis is now. The whole sector is in imminent danger of collapse.
I have raised this issue previously but it needs to be raised again with the Taoiseach. I am referring to the urgent need to have a debate in this House on human rights abuses globally. They are increasing at an alarming rate and without any major response. We should ensure the debate is used as a means of focusing attention, through the UN Security Council, on the issue and of ensuring the United Nations will take appropriate action as a matter of urgency.
The tentative recovery in aviation is under threat due to very genuine industrial relations issues involving air traffic controllers and craft workers in the maintenance section. It is beyond time the Government, including either the Taoiseach or Minister for Transport, took a hand in this to ensure the workers will be looked after, that their concerns will be met and that the tentative recovery will not be put at risk. I would be interested in the Taoiseach's thoughts on both of those matters.
Galway city has been plagued by vacant and derelict sites for many years now. I am happy to see the demolition of the Corrib Great Southern Hotel is now finally happening, 15 years after its closure and many years after it was added to the derelict sites register. The reality, however, is that it is a much deeper issue in that we are still being plagued by vacant sites and derelict sites. As has been mentioned today, students are deferring courses in their thousands because they cannot get accommodation and there are council waiting lists. What we need now is action on derelict and vacant sites. Will the Taoiseach commit to addressing this in budget 2022?
This week, Sinn Féin councillors were forced to bow to public pressure on a vote for 620 homes in Tallaght, 80% of which will be social or affordable. Instead of following through on its opposition to these homes, it abstained in the vote. What assurance can the Taoiseach give to people that, despite Sinn Féin's opposition on the ground to homes, homes like those in question will be built?
Husna Hasbeni is a two-year-old girl living in County Clare. She is an Irish citizen who has been stuck in Kabul since July along with her four-year-old sister, who was due to start preschool two weeks ago, and her mother and older brother. They are Irish citizens. Their home is 200 yards from my house. I know the family. They are stuck in Kabul. It is devastating and heartbreaking. The individuals are among the 60 Irish people who still need to get home. They are watching these proceedings. The video will be watched tonight in Kabul. The individuals need assurances from the Government that they can get home safely to their homeland, that their children can return to education and that they can come back to the life they have always had in Ireland. Will the Taoiseach please give some assurances in this regard in the Dáil today?
I thank the Deputies. Deputy Ryan raised a question about the women in "Women of Honour" and their search for justice and for the truth to be told. The Government has made no decision in respect of this. As I said earlier to Deputy Tóibín, the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, will be meeting the group. I will be also meeting them on foot of an email I received yesterday requesting a meeting.
Deputy Durkan raised the worrying situation of human rights abuses globally. He is absolutely correct. It is a matter of great concern. I am referring to the growth of authoritarian regimes and the consequent decline in terms of the human rights of citizens all over the world. I would welcome a debate on this in the House.
Deputy Duncan Smith raised the issue of aviation. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is working on it, with both airlines and airports, so we can do whatever we can to support them in increasing traffic in and out of the country and getting the aviation sector back on some footing. It will be slow. This is an area in which Covid is having a lingering and more medium-term impact. Nonetheless, we will do whatever we can.
Deputy Farrell raised the issue of derelict sites and the Housing for All strategy. Taxation measures will be introduced that will be more effective in dealing with dereliction of the kind in question and transforming derelict sites into new housing units in towns, villages and cities across the country. That is the objective of the Government in that respect.
Deputy Higgins raised the matter of the 620 homes in Tallaght. I welcome the decision. All political parties need to do everything they possibly can to facilitate the construction of housing and apartments. We need different types of housing projects, including projects to provide apartments and two-bedroom houses, right across the board. I am referring to social and affordable housing and so on. We just need more supply. We owe it to the younger people in this country who need access to housing that we ensure we do not stop projects that could deliver the kind of housing in question. That responsibility is on us, including all parties.
Deputy Cathal Crowe raised the very heart-rending case of his neighbours who are stuck in Kabul and who are finding it very difficult to get out. The Deputy should rest assured that we will do everything we possibly can as a government to facilitate the safe return to our country of Irish citizens. I do not have the name of the person to which the Deputy referred but the Minister for Foreign Affairs will bring a memorandum to the Government next week in respect of this. The Deputy should not doubt that we will do what we can to facilitate the family and other families or Irish citizens who need to come back.
Deputy O'Dea raised the issue of childcare. We are committed to increasing the investment in early childhood learning to at least €1 billion by 2028 but I take the Deputy's overall point that a fundamental and profound examination is required. There has been an increase in early learning and childcare places nationally of around 60%, and around 27,000 new early learning and childcare places are funded under the capital programme as we speak, but we do need to take a fundamental look at childcare more generally.