Thursday, 16 September 2021
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
The Tánaiste is part of a Government that is notoriously leaky, and I am not going to go into his own issues as it is subject to a criminal investigation. Yesterday, the Taoiseach could not update the House in regard to the investigation into the leak regarding the mother and baby homes commission after that report made its way to Government. As he knows, this was a leak that caused massive hurt and pain to the survivors and their families. Last night, we discussed the controversy surrounding the appointment of Katherine Zappone to a made-up job, which also originated as a leak from Cabinet. The Tánaiste supposedly confronted the senior Minister responsible following a Fine Gael sting operation by one of its junior Ministers. Has the Tánaiste shared the details of that with the Taoiseach?
I am not sure that relates to promised legislation but what I can say is that what happened in the Dáil yesterday was wrong. What Deputy Carthy did yesterday was an abuse of privilege, to make an allegation against a member of the Cabinet based on rumour and no evidence whatsoever. I have no evidence that particular leak which Deputy Doherty referred to was done by a Cabinet member. It was not even accurate, it was not correct, or at least it was not entirely correct, and I have yet to see any evidence to that effect. However, that did not matter to Deputy Carthy. He came in here anyway, he had heard a rumour, and he abused his privilege as a Member of the House to make an allegation against another Member of the House. I hope the committee on procedure and privileges will examine this matter.
Of course, it is not a surprise Sinn Féin should abuse privilege on the first day back in this House. If that is the way they behave in opposition, imagine how they would trample people's rights if they were allowed into government. Why do they do it? It is because it was the form of their party leader. In 2015, Deputy McDonald came to this House and made false allegations about six people, including a dead man, that they were tax evaders and that they had Ansbacher accounts. The CPP ruled she abused privilege but there were no consequences. Deputy Doherty cannot preach to us about standards until he deals with his leader.
I do not wish to be in any way disorderly, but yesterday I was named in this House in my unavoidable absence. What was said, in my view, was a misuse of Dáil privilege and I want the record of this House to show that it is untrue.
I sent a message to the Taoiseach and the Minister for Education this morning relating to a second-level school in Donaghmede that Deputy Duncan Smith and I visited this morning. The conditions in which the children and staff are working are quite deplorable. I ask the Government to address the issue as soon as it possibly can.
I want to raise the issue of the return to school. In our view, there are thousands of children out of school unnecessarily. There are asymptomatic children being kept out of school for 14 days. Is the Tánaiste engaging with the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, to re-evaluate the system as it currently stands because the public health teams are not engaging with schools as they did prior to the summer? As the Tánaiste will be aware, the public health team used to connect with the school and make a determination on what should happen next in the case of a Covid case. Now we have a situation where the public health teams are not engaging as well. Principals are left two, three, four or five days without any communication and having to make their own determination.
I hope it will not get worse. The return to schools has been successful - much more successful than many of the doomsayers said it would be - and cases are now stable or falling. Hopefully, it will get better and not worse, but we cannot assume that. We cannot take anything for granted in that regard.
I appreciate that children missing school is causing enormous disruption. Their parents then having to stay at home to look after them is causing disruption for them and at workplace level as well. In our engagements with NPHET and the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, we will be asking for updated advice on this. They are looking at the issue of masks as well at present, and we would welcome that.
The advice at present is that a person who is a close contact and is fully vaccinated does not need to restrict his or her movements or isolate unless he or she has symptoms, but a person who is not vaccinated needs to do so. Of course, children under 12 do not have the opportunity to be vaccinated and therein lies the difficulty. We are consulting NPHET and the HPSC on the best way forward, but I ask the Deputy to-----
On the last day of the previous Dáil term, I asked the Tánaiste about the ongoing restrictions in maternity hospitals. He stated:
this really ought not be a problem anymore. Certainly, by the time we return after the summer recess, ... Let us try to get this sorted over the next couple of weeks.
Unfortunately, we are back but many of the restrictions are still in place. Last night, Better Maternity Care had a meeting where women shared stories of distress, fear and anger as they were forced to endure labour and caring for their newborn alone. This was compounded by "The Rotunda" television series which was permitted to film in the hospitals when partners were banned from them. This has been going on for so long that some women are about to have their second babies in these disgraceful conditions. When NPHET advised the Government that indoor dining could not proceed as planned on 5 July, the Minister held continuous high-level meetings, with late nights and weekends for the Attorney General's staff, and rapidly published new legislation. There was no evidence of the same level of attention on 10 May when NPHET stated there was no good reason, in public health terms, maternity restrictions continued to be in place.
In fairness, the Minister and the Government have given this issue much of our attention. It is an issue that continues to come through my constituency office. It probably comes through the Deputy's office too. I sympathise with the lived experience of people who have to sit in a car park when they should be at the side of their partner being scanned, attending an appointment or giving birth to a child.
As matters stand, as the Deputy will be aware, 90% of adults are now fully vaccinated in Ireland, which is an enormous achievement by us as a society. In that situation, I certainly do not believe it should be necessary for hospitals to ban partners from attending maternity appointments - that is the view of Government and of the HSE - but I will stand over and vindicate the right of the doctors and nurses on the ground to make exceptions because every hospital has a senior nurse in charge of infection control and a senior doctor in charge of infection control and I would be reluctant to overrule them.
The programme for Government talks about tackling low pay and improving the minimum wage but it seems even the currently inadequate minimum wage is being violated by companies through internship schemes. I have written to the Tánaiste and to the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, about one such scheme in Creedon's Dog Care in Cork, which sees interns expected to work from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. completely free for 60 days doing a mix of dog grooming and office work. They even want some of their interns to pay the company €300 for the experience. The law is clear on this. Work experience placements and internships must pay at least the national minimum wage. Any employer not paying is guilty of a criminal offence and could face up to six months in prison. Is this being enforced or is this the tip of the iceberg in terms of exploitation? Will the Tánaiste intervene and ensure action is taken to ensure interns are paid for the work they are doing? While the Tánaiste is at it, he might scrap JobBridge 2.0.
The minimum wage has increased by 25% in recent years. It has been increased ahead of the rate of inflation and ahead of average earnings growth. We have one of the highest minimum wages in the developed world. If one adjusts it for the cost of living, it is not so high but still well above average for the developed world. That has been positive and has made a real difference in people's lives. We always must balance it with the fact that if one goes too far or too high, people will lose jobs or have their hours cut, and that is not in anyone's interests.
In relation to the particular issue that the Deputy raised, if he wants to pass on the details I will make sure the relevant agencies in my Department are made aware of it and can investigate it.
The Tánaiste will be well aware of the situation in Tipperary town regarding a bypass of the town. I understand the review of the national development plan is under way and is due in the coming days. We dearly need to have funding in there for a relief road for the town - a bypass or else as part of the N24 project. We need to relieve the town.
The Jobs4Tipp and March4Tipp campaigns, along with the County Tipperary Chamber and everybody else, brought 5,000 people onto the streets nearly two years ago. They need to see this. The town is congested. It cannot thrive. The task force is doing great work but we need to relieve the town of the trucks and let the town breathe and live.
As the Deputy will be aware, I have visited Tipperary town on a number of occasions, including as a previous Minister with responsibility for transport. I believe, and the Government agrees, and so does the Minister for Transport, that the town needs to be bypassed. The only way we will regenerate the town is by bypassing it and relieving it from the through traffic it currently experiences. Deputies Cahill and Lowry and Senator Ahearn are of the same view too.
The revised national development plan, NDP, has yet to go to the Government. We will have a discussion about it at the Cabinet sub-committee this afternoon and it will probably go to the Government in early October.
Today, I would like to raise a very important issue that my constituency office is dealing with on a daily basis. As my colleagues will be aware, there is a serious problem with housing in this country and an ever-increasing demand for social housing. There is also another problem occurring, that is, the fact that a married couple who are on the local authority housing list will automatically be removed from the list once their earnings exceed €36,000. The first issue I have with this is that the limit is too small and not realistic. If you are €1 over, you are off the list. It is black or white. You could be on the list six or seven years, but you will be off the list in these circumstances.
This creates another problem, that is, in certain cases people are turning down jobs where their earnings will exceed the threshold. We have a situation in this country where a certain sector is crying out for workers yet its workers are reluctant to take these jobs because they fear that they will be removed from the local authority housing list. I ask the Government to look on this situation as a matter of urgency and come back with proposals that will allow these people to take the available jobs and remain on the housing list. This is the only opportunity they have of getting a house. They want to work, but €1 over the limit and you are gone.
I suppose it is always the difficulty with any kind of system that involves a means test or threshold. If we do not give social housing to everyone, which, of course, is not possible, we have to set some sort of income limit and set of rules.
There will be always someone who is €1 or €10 above the threshold regardless of where it is set.
The income limits are being reviewed. They have not been increased for a long time, yet the cost of housing has increased dramatically. I anticipate that we will have to raise the limits. We should raise them to take account of the rising cost of housing.
I take the Deputy's point. It is perverse that people would turn down employment or pay increases or not work extra hours because of the fear of losing their places on the housing list or their medical cards. Unfortunately, though, that is the reality for many people. This is why we are reviewing those limits.
I have been working with the Dublin 12 campaign for autism spectrum disorder, ASD, inclusion for a long time. It is a vibrant campaign that got a school on St. Agnes Road with the support of the Minister. Over the past while, however, and in particular this summer, there has been a transition from CHO 7, Enable Ireland and other services to progressive disability services. The families in question have been left in a lacuna. They have already suffered long waits for speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and audiology services. Now they have been left with nothing. They were recently told that the transfer list would start at the end of September. There must be an intervention to ensure that this process is progressed quickly. I would like the Tánaiste to discuss doing so with the CEO.
I am afraid I am not across the issue and I do not have a note on it with me, but I will let Deputy Madigan, the Minister of State with responsibility for special education, know that it was raised in the House and ask her to contact the Deputy directly.
Will the Tánaiste update the House on the ongoing dispute over pay and conditions for school secretaries and caretakers? I was delighted to see the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, announcing that good progress had been made in recent days. This is a priority for me. Many of these staff members are the lifeblood of school communities and the glue that keeps schools together. They need to be treated with the same respect and dignity as their colleagues.
The Government is very much aware of the role played by school secretaries and caretakers in the school community and recognises the important work done by these staff and other support staff in the running of our schools. There have been intensive discussions at the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, which is an office of my Department, and a great deal of progress has been made in recent days on the long-running industrial dispute over pay and conditions for school secretaries who are outside the education and training board, ETB, sector. The parties engaged further at the WRC on 13 September. The Department, subject to agreement on all elements of the claim, offered to align school secretaries' pay rates with that of clerical officer grade III in ETBs, with an effective implementation date for these new pay arrangements of 1 September. It would be retrospective for a few days at least in that regard. This would mean that they would be on the payroll for the full year and would not have to sign on and off over the summer as they do now, which is unsatisfactory.
The national day of action has been deferred and all parties will resume intensive talks. Hopefully, we will be able to agree a final package soon.
One of the challenges facing the Government is achieving a step change in early childhood policy. The current policy is hampering children and frustrating parents and many providers and staff. Does the Tánaiste envisage there being some initiatives in budget 2022? More importantly, when will we see the childhood service development agency and the beginning of recognition in city and county planning of the needs of early childhood? When will we see public assets being more widely available to fill gaps in early childhood services?
I thank the Deputy for his question. Throughout the pandemic, the State has offered significant supports to childcare services across the country, and rightly so. The childcare sector stepped up, particularly last January, and kept services open for the most vulnerable children.
The Deputy is right. The expert group on the funding model will report in the coming months and set out how to ensure important public investment in and public management of our childcare services. I will engage on the funding issue with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, in the context of my Department's bid in the Estimates process.
Regarding an agency, as the Deputy knows, we initiated a review of the operational model across the childcare sector last year. Its report will come to us in November. I will be happy to update the House once that report arrives.
Like Deputy Cairns, I attended the online meeting with the 200 or so women who had given birth or been pregnant during Covid. It was called "The Real Rotunda" because, frankly, the television programme has rubbed salt into wounds. In an outrageous situation, camera crews were inside with the woman giving birth while her partner was outside in the car. The women's stories were heartbreaking. There has been a great deal of pain and hardship.
The Tánaiste has stated that the Government has given this matter considerable attention, and perhaps it has, but for three or four months that comprised saying that the problem had already been solved until the Government moved on to saying it could not do much about the situation. I do not accept that. What I am asking the Tánaiste to commit to is for the Government to set a policy objective that we need to return to pre-pandemic levels of access for partners. I am not referring to everyone or dozens of people, but to the one person who is not a visitor but an essential support. By all means, work with the hospitals and maternity units and identify safeguards to make doing this possible. Until the Government sets an objective of pre-pandemic access levels for partners, with safeguards, nothing will change soon. That needs to be the commitment from the Tánaiste and the Minister for Health.
Now that we have reached the point of over 90% of adults being fully vaccinated, we should revert to the status quo anteat least when it comes to partners attending maternity services. That is not to say that we should revert to the previous general visiting arrangements. There was probably too much visiting happening in hospitals, bringing infections into hospitals and nursing homes. When it comes to partners attending for maternity appointments, it is the Government's policy that, now that we are at the point of 90% of adults being fully vaccinated, the situation should revert to how it was before.
I recently asked the National Transport Authority, NTA, to increase the frequency of the Local Link service from Ballaghaderreen to Roscommon town in my constituency. This route passes through a number of small rural towns and villages, some of which have no public transport whatsoever. The service also provides an important link to Roscommon hospital.
I have sought for the service to be increased from two days to four. The NTA has advised that it will work with Local Link to enhance the service but does not actually have the funding to enhance it. When will the Government commit to investing properly in rural transport links, which are critical for rural towns and villages? During the summer, the 20 and X20 routes from Galway to Dublin were pulled. This left towns like Ballinasloe, Aughrim and Loughrea without public transport links, which are important. If we are serious about telling people to get out of their cars and onto public transport, we cannot cut services and fail to invest.
Obviously this is a matter for the NTA, which has seen a significant increase in its budget in recent years. Its budget has not been cut. In the next budget, we are projecting an approximate 5% increase in general spending, leaving out Covid emergency spending. There will be additional funding for road transport next year. Exactly how that is best allocated will be a decision for the NTA rather than the Government.
I wish to raise the issue of the forestry crisis again. I have raised it many times in the House, including during Leaders' Questions. This week, there was another meeting of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine where my colleague, Deputy Michael Collins, also raised the matter.
This situation is becoming a national scandal and embarrassment. Some 6,000 licence applications are caught up in a backlog and our sawmills are importing timber. The construction industry is also affected and 10,000 jobs hang in the balance. These are rural jobs that serve local economies. We need action. Will the Tánaiste play his part in introducing emergency legislation to end this crisis once and for all? Too many jobs are at stake. There is significant concern among sawmill operators, foresters, hauliers and farmers. We need to resolve this issue.
There have been six meetings of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine and this still has not been resolved. It is an absolute shambles at this stage.
I appreciate this issue is causing a lot of frustration, not just for people involved in forestry but in terms of the impact it is having in construction as well. The Government is keen to get it resolved. I am told by the Department that licensing this year will be significantly up on last year. There was an increase in licensing output in the seven weeks up to 2 July and approximately 100 licences are now being issued per week. These improvements were interrupted by the requirement to go to a second 30-day public consultation for cases subject to an appropriate assessment. A lot of additional resources have been provided to the Department, with more ecologists, forestry inspectors and additional administrative staff applied to licensing. Twenty-seven ecologists have been recruited, which is an increase from only two 18 months ago. The Department has supplemented its forestry inspectorate with 15 new inspectors. A project manager and business analyst have been recruited and they have been working with the Department since June and 15 administrative staff have been recruited. There is a backlog to get through but hopefully things will improve soon.
I seek assurance that the working group on the defective concrete blocks grant scheme for thousands of affected families in counties Mayo and Donegal will conclude its report, as promised, on Thursday, 30 September. I am conscious the group had previously intended to report to the Minister by 31 July, but I understand this was postponed at the request of homeowner representatives on the working group. The scale of the pyrite and mica crisis is difficult to comprehend in Mayo, north Mayo and Donegal, with many local authorities in Clare, Limerick and Sligo looking to enter the scheme. While I understand this is a complex issue and I recognise the Government's commitment to get it right, I would greatly appreciate an update on it.
Like the Deputy, my understanding is that the original deadline was extended to allow more consultation with the homeowner groups and that the deadline for the presentation of a solution is now 30 September, which is not that far off in that it is only two weeks away. I have heard no suggested or inklings that that deadline is going to be changed again, but I cannot be 100% sure of that. As best I know, we should be in a position to have options for a solution by then. That will be eagerly awaited by people affected by mica and pyrite, not just in Donegal but in Mayo and other counties as well.
Existing contracts with employment service partners, including the local employment service and jobs clubs, expire at the end of the year. I want to ask the Tánaiste about the procurement process and the finalisation of the tender design for next year. I have met with my local jobs club team and I know the great work and service Carlow Jobs Club offers and has offered for the past 22 years. The jobs club is protected under the Carlow County Development Partnership. These are essential community services. They are community-rooted, not-for-profit services and nobody can deny they have supported jobseekers, especially in disadvantaged areas. The push from Government to privatise these services is troubling. It is very worrying. The move to trial a new service by public tender has been criticised by SIPTU and the Irish Local Development Network. I would like to know what is being done to support these services. We have to continue these services.
I take on board the points the Deputy raised. To be clear, local employment services are something we very much need. The service has been provided through a number of different providers over the years. As stated by the Deputy, some of them have been operational for as long as 22 years. We have legal advice that we must put these services out to tender. I have put four areas out to tender in respect of which there are no employment services. I am awaiting the results of that process. We will take on board the learnings from that process for the particular areas we have put out for tender. We have been working closely with the different providers in terms of consultation with officials from my Department. They are meeting with SIPTU next week and they will also meet the local employment services. The services are not being privatised. I do not want anybody to think that.
Earlier, the Tánaiste said that it was Government policy that the maternity restrictions are essentially lifted but that he recognised the right of individual hospitals to make their own decisions, which essentially leaves us with the status quowhereby maternity restrictions will remain in place. This begs the question as to who is in charge of our health service. Is the Government in a position to actively direct the hospitals to follow Government policy in this matter? There is little point in Government having radical listening exercises with women if it does not propose to actually hear what they are saying.
The Government is in charge of our health service or, at least, the public health service, but it has always been a principle of good government and good management of our health service that politicians and officials do not make clinical decisions.
I have never come across a situation whereby an official or a Minister would seek to override the judgment of the doctor or nurse in charge of infection control in a hospital. I would be reluctant to go down that path. That may be my bias coming from my background as a doctor. That could create all sorts of other problems. Hopefully, we are getting to the point where this does not arise.
This morning, RTÉ was in Enfield talking to people who are experiencing disruption to their water supply nearly every second day. This is affecting 10,000 people. Households and businesses are left with little or no water. People are at their wits' end. I raised this issue with the Tánaiste on 29 January, when he said he would contact Irish Water and get back to me, but I heard nothing. I again raised it with the Taoiseach on 16 June and he said that extra allocations were being made. When will the money for these reservoirs be released? Families and businesses are struggling and this cannot continue. If this was happening in the Tánaiste's area, it would not be allowed to continue. It cannot be allowed to continue for the people of Enfield, Longwood and Ballivor. When will we get a start date for the reservoirs in these towns and villages and when will the funding in that regard be released?
This is a local issue of importance to the Deputy and the Minister of State, Deputy English. I do not have the information on particular water projects to hand but I will follow up on the matter and seek to have a reply sent directly to the Deputy.
We have had a series of health crises in west Cork. During the summer, Bantry General Hospital closed for 16 days with no admissions. We also had a crisis in regard to ambulance services, where an ambulance is no longer in west Cork any night when four ambulances are meant to be. There is a new crisis at the doorstep of the people of west Cork. For the past two weeks, the people of Castletownbere have had no SouthDoc service due to the retirement of a locum, leaving Adrigole, Ardgroom, Allihies, Glengarriff and even Lauragh in south Kerry, without a proper SouthDoc service. The SouthDoc service in Kinsale ceased in 2014, as reported in the The Carrigdhoun newspaper last week. This is putting extreme pressure on great doctors in Castletownbere and its surrounds. Can the Tánaiste work with the Minister for Health to resolve this crisis in Castletownbere SouthDoc immediately before we have a serious loss of life?
Last week, the French Government, in an act of solidarity and gratitude, fast-tracked and granted the citizenship applications of 12,000 front-line workers. If France can do it, why can we not do it?
Earlier this week, I attended a meeting of school principals and a family resource centre about how open drug dealing is impacting the services they provide in the community. We all saw the "Prime Time" programme on open drug dealing in Ballymun. My question relates to the programme for Government. When will the citizens' assembly on drug use be brought forward and will the Tánaiste and the Minister for Justice engage with the Garda Commissioner about the policing of open drug dealing hotspots in places like Finglas and Ballymun?
I want to raise the issue of global access to vaccines. What role will the Tánaiste and the Government play in ensuring fair and equitable access to vaccines? I am aware of, and support, the call for a TRIPS waiver. Does the Tánaiste support that call? If so, that is great; if not, how will Ireland and the EU play a leading role in that regard? I do not believe that answer is in tokenism or patronage. How will Ireland and the EU play a leading role to ensure a fair and equitable roll-out?
I will refer the question on the An Garda Síochána to the Minister for Justice, Deputy Humphreys.
In regard to SouthDoc, I will inform the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, that it was raised here today and, as suggested by Deputy Collins, I will work with him to resolve the issue and make sure the service is restored.
We do not have a date for the citizen's assembly on drug use yet. There are a number of citizen's assemblies planned and it is on the list, so it is to be hoped we get to it soon.
On vaccines, internationally we are committing 2 million vaccines which we are donating to developing countries. We have committed a lot of money to the World Health Organization and to COVAX. I think we are getting to the point now where the supply of vaccines is not the major constraint, rather it is the ability of developing countries to have the systems on the ground, namely, having a licensing body to license it and then the infrastructure on the ground to give the vaccines. They are going to need a lot of help in that regard but I do not think supply is the issue any more in the way it was in the past. Certainly it is not the only issue.
I very much agree with Deputy Richmond's sentiment that if France can do it, why can we not. If the French can do it, we should be able to as well. It would be a very significant and very timely gesture for us to fast-track the citizenship applications of front-line workers, and even back-line workers, who helped us get to this point in the pandemic. I am sure it is administratively tricky but it is a very good idea and one I will definitely be taking up with the Minister for Justice, Deputy Humphreys, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, to see if we can do the same as France.
On the citizenship applications, Covid has of course meant things have been slowed down somewhat but we have been doing them. It was a pleasure for me to attend an online citizenship ceremony and we are working our way through those lists and I will get an update for the Deputy.
On antisocial behaviour, the Government is determined to tackle it. I regularly meet with the Garda Commissioner and An Garda Síochána continues to implement high-visibility policing plans to address public disorder-related issues and antisocial behaviour, with particular overt and targeted policing of public places at times when public order incidents and antisocial behaviour typically increase.