Tuesday, 21 September 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
As Deputies are aware, we have agreed that for the period of the emergency, the report of the Business Committee will be taken as read. Are the proposed arrangements for this week's business agreed to?
Not agreed. It is almost three weeks since the Government launched its Housing for All plan. The Dáil did not debate it last week and we will not debate it this week. It is inappropriate that the Government gets to launch its plan with great fanfare and talk of 300,000 homes by the end of 2030, the majority of which are simply estimates of what private developers will build, without it being debated here. There is a danger that all the flaws in the plan will be exposed before there is even a debate in the House. Consider the selling off of public land to private developers in South Dublin County Council's area last week. Consider the absence of measures for renters, exposing the fact that people will continue to face soaring rents-----
The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage needs to attend the House and we should debate Housing for All. On the Order of Business last week, I raised the comments made by the Minister on 24 June in which he incorrectly stated that the Central Bank had given approval to the shared equity scheme as part of what was then the Affordable Housing Bill. I asked that those comments be corrected, but they have not been. The remarks made by the Minister last week and in the letter sent to the Ceann Comhairle did not even reference the comments he made on 24 June last. We cannot have a situation where Ministers state incorrectly in the House that they have received regulatory approval for schemes when that has not happened. It cannot be accepted. The Tánaiste referenced the importance of the truth being told. It is important that the truth in this matter be told and that the position be corrected. It is also the case that the Minister spent more time meeting representatives of the construction industry before publishing the Affordable Housing Bill-----
In fairness, that matter was discussed at some length at the Business Committee. The Chief Whip undertook to engage with the Minister on the matter. I am sure we will come back to it.
Last week, I raised the issue of felling licences. There should be no such thing as a felling licence for 50 ha. When someone plants any other crop, be it miscanthus, barley, wheat or potatoes, it can be harvested. This situation is farcical. I will keep raising it. We have an energy crisis. We also have heaps of timber, but we are not allowed to cut it. This would not happen in a kindergarten. The Minister of State introduced legislation almost a year ago, but it was useless, toothless and fruitless. We must allow timber to be cut. The cost of timber for use in construction has doubled. Timber cannot be got in Ireland; we are importing it. This makes no sense. We need a proper debate in the Dáil. We need legislation to be introduced by the major parties to give people the right to harvest the crops they sow.
The Government would welcome a debate on Housing for All, giving the Minister an opportunity to present it to the House and to hear views on it. Perhaps time could be found next week or thereafter for us to give it the airing it deserves and to hear Members' views. I imagine that is something that the Business Committee can discuss. Our programme for this week is already busy. We talked about aviation - there are aviation agreements to be ratified. We talked about crime - there is the Prüm DNA profiles motion. There is important legislation from my Department on white-collar crime. There is sea fisheries legislation, which is important to our maritime communities. There are Garda Síochána orders. There is a debate on child poverty and child homelessness. There are also important Private Members' Bills from the Opposition. I am not sure which of these important debates we would cut. I would not like to see us cutting any of them in order to discuss Housing for All this week, but perhaps we could discuss it next week or the week after.
The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, is on the case. I am sure that we can find time for a debate, but the Government would like to stick to the order before us. I have not yet heard anyone say which of the other debates should be cut or deprioritised.
I would be happy for us to extend our time to facilitate our request. The Tánaiste has not responded to the points I made about the record of 24 June when the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage incorrectly stated that his shared equity scheme had received approval from the Central Bank.
We cannot allow that statement to go uncorrected.
Workers and families are being hammered by hikes in electricity and gas prices. There have been more than 25 increases from the 14 providers in the past year alone. Many thousands face a price hike of more than €400 this winter. That is even before the budget. People are paying through their noses to light and heat their homes. There are thousands of families who fall outside the criteria for social protection. They are under massive pressure right now. Anyone who listened yesterday to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, on the radio would have been panicking because he could not tell people what the Government is going to do, or if it is going to do anything. While there are global factors - the Tánaiste alluded to them - there are things the Government can do. Has this crisis been discussed at Cabinet? Has the Minister, Deputy Ryan, engaged directly with the regulator and called in the providers to address these off-the-wall price hikes?
It has been discussed. On the other questions, I will have to ask the Minister, Deputy Ryan, to confirm his actions in that regard. I would imagine the answer is "Yes", but I do not want to speak for him.
The Tánaiste was Taoiseach when I raised the issue of a €1,000 bonus for front-line workers last year. He will be aware that the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, has also looked for a bonus or annual leave. We do not need to rehearse why the people who worked on the front line deserve this bonus. The Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, could not be engaged by the HSE last year because the Government refused to sign off on anything. We all know that other European countries, including the UK and France, have acted in various ways, be that through changes in tax, provision of direct bonuses or other means. In yesterday's Irish Examiner, there was some form of leak or statement to the effect that something is being considered in the budget for front-line workers. While not giving us the details given that this is a budgetary issue, will the Tánaiste confirm that something will be done in the budget to acknowledge front-line workers and their contribution throughout the Covid pandemic?
I have no detail on this because it is not agreed yet, but the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, is working on the issue. All of us in this House acknowledge that front-line workers who put in an extra effort and made extra sacrifices during the pandemic, and continue to do so, should be rewarded in some way. Whether that is a financial bonus or additional annual leave needs to be discussed but I would have a strong view as well that it should not be limited to front-line workers in our health service. I have seen the enormous work done by civil servants in the Department of Social Protection making sure people got their pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, quickly. I know of the work staff in Revenue did making sure businesses got their employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, payments and staff in my Department did making sure businesses got the assistance they needed. Too often, we make this distinction between front-line workers and non-front-line workers, which does not fully appreciate that there is nothing you can do as a front-line worker if it were not for all of the people behind you.
More than 40 years ago, 48 young people went for a night out to the Stardust and they never came home. The families and loved ones have been waiting more than 40 years for the truth and justice for their loved ones. The latest delay in the Stardust inquest, because the Legal Aid Board has refused to release funding to the legal team for the families, is completely unacceptable. Funding has been released for all of the other parties in the inquest so they can prepare properly for it. The families need to be treated fairly and equally. After 40 years, they should not be left waiting any longer. Will the Government ask the Legal Aid Board to release funding to the families of the 48 people who never came home from the Stardust?
Earlier, my colleague, Deputy Barry, raised the horrific treatment by Aer Lingus of its workers. Unfortunately, they are not the only group of workers within aviation facing severe attacks on their terms and conditions.
The management of Dublin Airport Authority took advantage of the pandemic to ram through a series of attacks on workers' terms and conditions and to undermine them. The consequences of the so-called new ways of working were clearly evident a couple of weeks ago when there were massive queues at security in Dublin Airport. Now, the only group of workers who rejected the new ways of working document, namely, the craft workers, are facing the prospect of all their jobs being outsourced. All of their jobs have been advertised as being outsourced. This is an incredible attack on workers in a semi-State company. They voted overwhelmingly, and correctly, for industrial action and are prepared to take action to defend their jobs and their terms and conditions. The question is will the Government will intervene to defend these jobs.
The mechanism by which the Government can intervene in an industrial relations dispute is through the Workplace Relations Commission or the Labour Court. Both are offices of my Department and both are available to the workers and the company involved if there is a willingness to engage.
I wish to refer to the context of the Northern and Western Regional Assembly area, which the European Union has recognised and categorised as a region in transition, as an industrial region that is lagging behind and as a moderate innovator. There must be a seismic shift in focus to ensure this region develops to its full potential. In light of the fact the Government is now carrying out a review of the national development plan, under the title Review to Renew, in what way will the Government positively discriminate in the context of providing funding for the area? Take the example of Intel, which is looking at the possibility of locating a significant facility in Oranmore. How do we get the infrastructure in the eight-county region to support such a major investment?
One of the advantages of the regions designation is that we can positively discriminate in a region's favour. Thus, when it comes to employment grants from my Department for new industry, we can offer grants in the west and north west that cannot be offered in Dublin and Cork. We are absolutely prepared to do that in order to secure jobs and investment for the region. Then there is what we might call the broader, more traditional part of the national development plan, that is, investing in roads, railways and broadband. The new plan will see an increase in capital investment in the coming years. We are going to ensure that the regions which need it most get that investment.
There is a crisis in the pig industry because of a lack of exports of pigs to Northern Ireland. A company called Karro is the main importer there. In July and August, 12,000 fewer pigs were exported to the North. There is an animal welfare issue because producers cannot get staff. Their eastern European staff left during the lockdown, and now they do not have the staff. This is a crisis, but the Taoiseach, who was in south County Tipperary last week, and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, who was in Fermoy, refused to meet the Ryan family, who are massive employers. Will the Tánaiste, as the Minister with responsibility for enterprise, look into this and try to get it sorted out? Pigs are going to be sent back to farms and animal welfare issues are going to arise, despite the best efforts of the pig farmers. This a huge industry. As I said, 12,000 fewer pigs were sent up to the North over eight weeks this year. A disproportionate cut is being inflicted on Irish pig producers. This matter must be sorted out. There is a national crisis with employees for every industry, but this is particularly acute because of the animal welfare aspect.
I very much hear the Deputy's concerns. One of the many things the pandemic has taught us is the extent to which we are dependent on people coming from central and eastern Europe who are willing to work here. They are often willing to work in jobs Irish people do not want to do. Britain, which has left the Single Market, is really learning that because it will not see these people return. Thankfully, we will see people from eastern Europe come back to Ireland to take up those jobs. I anticipate that return of migrants will happen now that travel bans are being lifted and flights restored. If the Deputy wishes to pass on anything in relation to the particular business he mentioned, I will be happy to take a look at it.
I have four times raised the issue of funding for completed safety and compliance works that were mandated by the Irish Aviation Authority, IAA, at Sligo Airport. I emphasise again that the busiest Coast Guard service in the country operates out of Sligo Airport. Yet, for the past ten years, Sligo Airport has not received a single euro of public money. While it has no commercial flights, the same situation pertains elsewhere and yet those airports receive public funds. At a meeting last Christmas that was attended by the Department, the Coast Guard, public representatives etc., it was agreed that funds could be channelled to the airport. To date, however, we have no guarantees and no timeline and we urgently need both. I ask for the Tánaiste’s help on this issue.
I thank Deputy Harkin for raising this issue again. I know that she has raised it before. The Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, has raised with me as well. Sligo Airport is a licensed European Union Aviation Safety Agency, EASA, aerodrome. It was directed in 2019 by the Irish Aviation Authority to upgrade the aerodrome. This would allow it to update to air and navigation safety standards. The mandatory works required include groundworks in the runway and safety areas, moving of runway thresholds, extensive runway lighting works and the completion of a new set of runway markings, together with all associated works and regulatory paperwork. I emphasise that the search and rescue service in Sligo is protected and is not under threat in any way. Discussions are now under way with CHC Ireland on project costs that relate specifically to the continued operation of the search and rescue base there. It should be said that this is a matter for CHC Ireland and Sligo Airport, under their own commercial arrangements, with regard to any additional costs involved. However, for its part, the Coast Guard, which of course is under the aegis of Department of Transport, is in contact with CHC Ireland to determine whether and what element of the costs can be charged under its contractual arrangements, with the view to ensuring a continued service and delivering optimal value for money. The Department of Transport has urged both sides to bring the matter to a conclusion. I am told that it is envisaged that the matter will be resolved shortly.
I wish to raise an issue with the Tánaiste on foot of the pending announcement that President Biden will allow transatlantic flights to resume from November. The Tánaiste will be aware that Shannon Airport has key transatlantic destinations to the likes of Boston and New York. The Heathrow Airport route is now back up and running, which is positive. We want to see that continue. The Tánaiste mentioned earlier about looking at funding for strategic routes. Shannon Airport has three current strategic routes, namely, Heathrow into Europe and worldwide and two transatlantic routes to Boston and New York. All three routes involve Aer Lingus. There are also other airlines flying transatlantic. Can the Tánaiste advise if there are discussions ongoing with Aer Lingus?
First, I join the Deputy in welcoming the fact that the Shannon to London Heathrow route is operating again. That route opens Shannon and the midwest to the world. It is important that that is happening again. I welcome President Biden's announcement that fully vaccinated people from Europe will be able to travel to the United States again. That allows us to get routes from Dublin and from Shannon to the United States up and running again. While I cannot go into any details around discussions with individual airlines, I can say the Government will be willing to put money on the table to incentivise airlines to restore routes that were lost during the pandemic. Of course, we have in our mind a hierarchy of routes that are most important. I do not think that the Deputy is too far off the mark in that regard.
I am going to put the Tánaiste in a difficult position by asking him to comment on or dismiss unconfirmed reports about a Government plan that has not yet been announced. Communities across north Dublin are concerned about reports that MetroLink may be delayed. I do not have to convince the Tánaiste of the benefits of MetroLink. It is a project that helps our climate, our city and the communities across north Dublin. These communities have engaged with Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, as late as in recent months, about the locations of stations and the details involved. I ask the Tánaiste to use this opportunity to restate the Government's commitment to the MetroLink project, as well as to state there will be no financial reasons for this project to be delayed.
I am happy to use this opportunity to restate the Government's commitment both to MetroLink and DART west. They are really important transport projects for Dublin. I read the story to which the Deputy referred and while I do not know if it is true, I can say that no Government decision has been taken to delay these projects, nor am I aware of any proposal to delay them. However, they will take time. They require railway orders and An Bord Pleanála hearings if and when there is a railway order. The project then has to go to tender and there have to be compulsory purchase orders and only then does construction start and construction will take some time. These projects will not happen quickly and we have to be honest with people about that. I am not aware of any Government proposal to take a decision to delay or defer them.
Last week, it was reported that families face paying €400 more for electricity and heating this winter. The Tánaiste has said the Government will look at increasing the fuel allowance but that allowance is very limited. People who lose their jobs must wait 15 months before they qualify for the fuel allowance. This is particularly important given the thousands of people who have lost their jobs due to Covid. There is also an issue when people get sick, and this will affect people who have long Covid, and go on to illness benefit as they cannot qualify for the fuel allowance. We need to widen the net in respect of the fuel allowance. I also ask that the Government, in its budget considerations, look at establishing a €5 million discretionary fund to help people who fall outside the scope of the fuel allowance with utility bill debt, which will rise. I ask that the Government consider these proposals as part of the budget negotiations.
We will look at those matters in the context of the budget. We are all very aware of the increasing cost of fuel and how it is impacting on families, consumers and businesses. The fuel allowance kicks in again from next week. In the context of the budget, we will look at the rate and the issue of widening eligibility to cover more people. We did that in relation to the pandemic unemployment payment last year so it would not be unprecedented to do so. I have not heard of the suggestion before of a discretionary fund. It sounds like a very good idea. I am not sure that €5 million would be enough but I know that if it was more than €5 million, the Deputy would not object. We will certainly have regard to this in the context of the budget. The Government is not under any illusions about how serious this issue is and how worried people are about the rising cost of fuel. They are much more worried about it than about some of the issues that take up too much time in this House.
The Tánaiste will be aware of the extent to which inflation is eroding people's purchasing power. I am sure he will agree that this bears down hardest on those at the very bottom, namely, people who have to rely on social welfare. Does the Government intend to take steps in the forthcoming budget to restore the purchasing power of those people? Not to do so would deepen and perpetuate inequality. I include in that group people who are in receipt of the State pension, despite the views of a group of officials in the Department of Finance who reported recently and who will never have to exist on the State old-age pension in their declining years.
I agree with the Deputy's initial comment that those who are hit hardest by inflation are those on the lowest incomes, namely, people on social welfare and pensioners. They do not have much discretionary spend. They are rarely able to save money and they know where every euro goes. They will be most effected by the rising cost of living. The Deputy and I worked together some years ago in a previous Government to make sure there was a welfare package and that it was for everyone, not just pensioners. The Government will put together a welfare package for the next budget. I cannot say at this stage exactly who it will apply to or what the increases in rates will be. That has to be worked out between now and budget day but we all appreciate that we are in a different context from the last two years. Owing to inflation and the rising cost of living, there will need to be increases for people so that they do not fall backwards.
Under the programme for Government, major infrastructure projects such as metro north and DART+ form a central part of the transport element of the national development plan. The Tánaiste just said he did not know where we are with this and whether there would be delays.
The Mail on Sundaysaid that this was brought to Cabinet in July. If so, I wonder how the Tánaiste came up with the idea that he did not hear about it? Can he confirm that the project is going to be extended out from 2027 to 2032? This is a kick in the teeth to an awful lot of people. I have been involved in a great deal of consultation on this project. If the reports are true, it is going to be kicked down the road again. This will be a major disaster, not just for the people on the ground but also for businesses and house-building projects. It will have a hugely detrimental effect on house building in these areas.
I thank the Deputy. As I indicated to Deputy McAuliffe earlier, if there was a Government decision to defer or postpone the MetroLink project I would know about it. There has not been. We will have a new national development plan agreed in early October and that will answer the question in respect of major infrastructural projects. I do want to say, however, that we need to take these things one step at a time. There is not yet even a railway order for this project.
Today, 35 female Members of the Oireachtas are signing a letter to Paul Reid and the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, in respect of restoring the access to all maternity units and maternity services that existed pre pandemic. We will keep the Tánaiste up to date on progress because it is something he has supported. Linked to that are the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly on gender equality, which were agreed, after a year's work, on 24 April. I am very pleased that the Ceann Comhairle and the Business Committee supported a proposal by me to establish a special, dedicated and fully resourced committee to advance those recommendations. Will the Tánaiste please outline what are the Government's plans are to support and advanced that, particularly given that the work is still very pressing?
When we have used citizens' assemblies to their best effect, we have done exactly what the Deputy proposes, which is to take the report, ask a time-limited special committee to examine it, refine it and then put proposals to the Government to which it can respond. That is how we intend to approach the report of this Citizen's Assembly. I have spoken about it with some of my people today and we will be working with a view to establishing that special committee in the next couple of weeks. There are some logistical issues about how many special committees there are and about staffing, members and so on. I do not believe it is beyond the wit of man or woman to have this committee up and running well before the end of this session, but certainly during this session.
I wish to raise the matter of section 47 assessments in the context of the proposed reform of family law referred to in the programme for Government. In the case of one court-appointed assessor, several women in north Kildare have come to me extremely distressed at the removal of their children in questionable circumstances. They have also outlined how this court-appointed assessor inserted himself into their family lives for a period far beyond the production of a report. These women feel doubly distressed because they are gagged by the in camera rule on their experience and, more crucially, the experience of their children. Since the assessor system is largely unstructured, it leaves these mothers with no safety net and no recourse. What is the Government proposing in the context of reforming the system of section 47 assessments?
I am sorry to hear of those experiences. I cannot give a comprehensive answer at the moment. I am not fully up to date or briefed on the matter, but I will let the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, know that it was raised here and ask him to reply to the Deputy directly.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me the opportunity. The oral health of many thousands of people in the State is under threat because medical cards are not accepted by many of those working in the dental profession. This is not an attack or a slight on our great dentists, who provide an invaluable service, not least in County Kerry. It is the exact opposite: it is to support them. Quite simply, dentists are finding it extremely difficult to run their businesses because of ever-increasing costs on them and because the money that being reimbursed to them by the HSE is not adequate when it comes to dealing with services for medical card holders. A medical card holder is every bit as entitled to receive a proper service as a person who has private health insurance or has enough money in his or her pocket to pay for taking care of his or her teeth.
The dental treatment services scheme, DTSS, was cut back significantly during the financial crisis and has not been restored. While we have agreed a restoration schedule for funding for general practice, we have not done so for dental practice. We will need to do that. It is a matter for the budget and the HSE service plan. I understand and share the Deputy’s sentiments. In the context of the health budget, it is not an enormous amount of money, so I hope we can get the matter resolved in the next couple months.
I wish to speak about the people of Carlow who have to endure long delays in accessing ambulances because the ambulance system has changed. This is unacceptable. There was only one ambulance in the base on Sunday. It seems the new system is managed through the central national emergency operations centre, which is supposed to ensure the most urgent calls get the highest priority response, regardless of the location of ambulance vehicles or base. We have a great hospital in Kilkenny but we do not have a hospital in Carlow. We do not even have an emergency response, ER, support, which is unacceptable.
I will give the Tánaiste the example of a man who fell in his garden and spent hours waiting for an ambulance to come. Another very old man also had to wait for hours. I compliment the ambulance paramedics who do an excellent job. We need a new base for the town centre because there are serious issues with the current base. I brought the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, who was in Carlow yesterday, to the base because it is not fit for purpose.
I thank the Deputy. We have a programme of improvements for the National Ambulance Service, including new vehicles and bases. I am not sure where Carlow fits into that but I will certainly inform the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, that the issue was raised in the House. Hopefully, we will be able to make some progress on it in the not-too-distant future.