Thursday, 23 September 2021
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
On learning of the sad passing of the former Teachta, Mervyn Taylor, on my behalf and behalf of Sinn Féin, I express sympathy to his family, friends and colleagues in the Labour Party.
In April, the personal injuries guidelines came into effect and slashed personal injury awards. Finally, there was an opportunity for insurance premiums to be reduced significantly. Again, I ask that the Government remove the stay it has placed on my legislation, which would hold those insurance companies to account in terms of passing on these savings to consumers. Just when there was a glimmer of hope for consumers, this month the Department of Finance published a proposal to impose an additional levy on premiums that will ultimately be paid by the consumer. We already have seven levies on insurance products: 3% on stamp duty; 2% on general insurance; 2% on motor insurance; 1% on life insurance; additional stamp duty on non-life insurance; and another 3% on motor insurance. Now, the Government is proposing another one to fund a bailout for the industry; not a windfall tax on industry profit to cover costs after the event but a levy imposed on consumers. I ask that the Government get real and rule out this proposal.
As the Tánaiste knows, we have a student accommodation crisis and the SUSI grant has not been increased. I want to raise a very specific issue relating to the crisis. In Dublin, developers of luxury student apartments are now trying to change their planning permission so they can be used as hotels for tourists. This was predicted by my colleague, our spokesperson on housing, Senator Rebecca Moynihan, back in 2018. We brought forward a Bill, the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2021, to deal with this issue. The Government needs to find holistic solutions to this issue over the coming years. Will it work with our Bill to ensure that speculators cannot use the planning system to change purpose-built student accommodation into apartments for tourists?
The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is aware of several student accommodation developments in Dublin that have applied for and received planning permission for ancillary use of their properties for short-term visitor accommodation. This provision is temporary and will lapse in May 2022. However, for accommodation to be removed from student use at a time when there are significant student accommodation shortages runs contrary to the national student accommodation strategy and is contrary to Government policy. For this reason, officials are engaging with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage on this matter. We are exploring all options available to us to ensure that purpose-built student accommodation remains in use for students and not for tourists. The two Departments met on this last night and expect to make a further announcement over the coming weeks.
My question also pertains to the student accommodation crisis. Many of the 1,055 student accommodation units that have been transferred to short-term lets are in my constituency.
I will switch angle and go another way on an issue similar to that raised by Deputy Kelly. There is a rental crisis throughout the country. The Social Democrats has been advocating a three-year ban on rent increases. There are a multitude of innovative and practical solutions that will alleviate the housing crisis experienced by the students outside the gates of Leinster House and people all over the country at present. Will the Government finally commit to a ban on rent increases for three years that will alleviate the accommodation crisis they are experiencing?
It means that rents will rise at a similar rate to the cost of living and, most likely, at a lower rate than the rise in incomes and wages. As things stand, and we always keep things under review, we believe an absolute rent freeze, or a 0% increase for three years, would be counterproductive. It would mean a rent reduction in real terms and would drive more property owners out of the rental market. People who currently own a rental property getting a reduced return in real terms each year-----
-----would be more likely to sell up. What happens if they sell up? The person living there gets a notice to quit and there is one fewer place for people to rent. We have to be careful not to do things that may be well intentioned but could be counterproductive.
I ask the Tánaiste to go outside to meet the students who will sleep out overnight to highlight the student accommodation crisis. They will tell him this is the worst the crisis has ever been. They will tell him stories about the very many students who still have no accommodation, who are commuting long distances every day, who are paying extortionate money in hotel fees or who are couch-surfing. As their slogan states, "No Keys, No Degrees". It is an unsustainable situation. As it stands, students will not be able to complete their education and we will have huge numbers dropping out as a consequence. They are the victims of a housing policy that has prioritised hotels over sustainable, purpose-built student accommodation and allowed private developers to build private student accommodation with, again, extortionate, unaffordable prices for most. Their request is for action now from the Government. What will it do?
As I mentioned, we have increased the student assistance fund, which will assist students who are in financial distress and need assistance. We have brought in affordability measures on student accommodation, including capping increases in rent pressure zones. Legislation has also been passed to restrict the upfront payments students used to have to make, payments of up to €3,500, which are no longer allowed. There is also an option to pay monthly and, crucially, we are giving technological universities the ability to borrow to build student accommodation because a big part of the solution is more student accommodation on, or near, campus on a cost-rental basis.
The difficulty we have, which has been identified by the universities, is that the cost of building is now so high that even on a cost-rental basis it still results in high rents. It is still the view of the Government that a major part of the solution, given the huge expansion in the number of students and the fact more people are attending third level education than ever before, and from more diverse backgrounds than ever before, which should be celebrated, is more on-campus and near-campus accommodation.
The programme for Government states that delivery of mental healthcare will be through the Sharing the Vision roadmap. It appears this road map has bypassed Wexford. We have no full child and child and adolescent mental health service, CAMHS, team in Arden House and we have no paediatric dietician, even though I pointed out on a number of occasions in the House that there is an increase in anorexia patients in County Wexford. You can imagine the disgust of the people of Wexford when the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Butler, announced a crisis resolution team, CRT, for her constituency, which covers 110,000 people. Wexford has 150,000 people. When will the Government deliver for Wexford? So far, this Government has given Wexford a quango that is not yet set up, the maritime area regulatory authority, MARA, to be housed in a building that is not yet built. When will the Government assist the people of Wexford?
The Government is very serious about mental health issues. We have had a lot of engagement and we have the largest budget in the history of the State. As the Deputy knows, a consultant psychologist was appointed to Arden House three weeks ago. It was difficult in relation to-----
-----recruitment and retention but that post has been filled. On the crisis resolution team I announced this week covering the areas of Waterford, south Kilkenny and Dungarvan, every community healthcare organisation CHO, and every area were able to put forward an application. The application was won for the Waterford area on its own merit because of the challenges it has in relation to bed capacity and the fact there was no other-----
On 26 June, I raised the issue of the crisis the West Cork Development Partnership finds itself in with the walks programme, which benefits more than 600 farmers in west Cork. The Sheep's Head Way and the Beara Way are among some of the stunning walks covered by this scheme, bringing in €14 million in walking tourism revenue to west Cork. For the past few years, west Cork has had two part-time recreation officers to oversee the payments and visits to 600 farmers, while other parts of the country with 25 farming participants have a full-time recreation officer. Since I raised this issue in June, the two existing recreation officers in west Cork have finished working simply due to the pressure they have been put under.
I am reliably informed that a long-awaited external review of the walks scheme given to the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, is lying on her desk and needs to be published. I am astonished that the Minister was in west Cork for several days during the summer, on the Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil roadshow with two chosen Oireachtas Members, and failed to meet with the West Cork Development Partnership despite all Oireachtas Members asking her to do so the month before. Will the Tánaiste personally intervene on this issue immediately in order that the West Cork Development Partnership can get four recreation officers, and payments to farmers and landowners in west Cork can be made this year?
I noted this morning that what is described as a senior Government source is now briefing the media that 100% redress for families affected by the mica issue is now being considered. This is some position shift from the Tánaiste's statements of last week and, as always, there are caveats with this latest kite-flying exercise, which is testing the waters to see what might be acceptable. It is nothing to see this Government all over the place on an issue. I have to say "fair play" to the Donegal mica redress campaigners because the pressure of their protest is clearly moving the Government's position on the issue in the right direction by the day. Their message is clear; 100% redress, nothing less. Will we see a Cabinet decision on mica redress in the first week of October as the Taoiseach stated in New York last night or should we expect more delays from the Government?
The figure of 100% is not off the table; it is very much on it. If the Deputy reads the comments I made the other day, I did not say anything contrary to that. Others chose to present it in a particular way and that happens sometimes, but 100% is very much under consideration. As things stand, we are working on an enhanced scheme. It is being led by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, in consultation with the affected families. Once the scheme is developed, it will require approval from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and will then go to Cabinet. While I have seen speculation in the newspapers, as the Deputy has, I see nothing in writing and I have no information on the details of the enhanced scheme. It is being worked on by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, and when it is available I am sure we will be able to share the details with people.
Every morning when I drop my son off and every evening when I come home to my wife, I am reminded of the very serious challenges posed to our early years sector. While it is very welcome that the joint labour committees, JLCs, have been established under the programme for Government, will the Tánaiste commit to resources being provided by the Government to the men and women, predominantly women, working in this sector and that they will be adequately provided for to ensure they can have a living wage and a true pathway to a professional wage?
The Government supports the establishment of a JLC to establish new minimum terms and conditions for people working in the childcare sector, to help us further professionalise that sector and to improve the terms and conditions in it. We also realise that will have an impact on childcare costs. We need to be honest with people about that, but it is worth it if means people working in the sector will get a better wage, the sector is professionalised and standards improved in the coming years. This project is being led by the Minister of State in my Department, Deputy English, but it is important to point out that JLCs require the co-operation of employers and staff.
Provided that is in place, we will make sure it happens.
I wish to raise the matter of the Housing for All document and the commitments contained therein. A section of the document refers to a planning reform Bill that may come before the House. I am particularly conscious of a proposal I put forward earlier this year, the purpose of which was to find a means by which a time limit on the decision-making process of An Bord Pleanála would be put on a statutory basis. Can the Tánaiste confirm that such a time limit will be a part of the proposal that is brought before the Dáil by the Government to address this and other issues which are creating a logjam in adequate planning that could provide adequate housing?
I thank the Deputy. The Bill is currently being drafted. It is a priority and the Attorney General in particular is taking an interest in it. One of the things under consideration is exactly what the Deputy has suggested, that is, that statutory timelines are set within which An Bord Pleanála must give its decisions. That is to avoid a situation where a development has been approved by a council but is then stuck with An Bord Pleanála for months on end. Tied to that, obviously, is making sure that An Bord Pleanála has the resources and staff to meet those deadlines. That is the solution we are working on and I know it is one the Deputy has proposed in the past. The legislation is only being worked on at the moment. It will take a bit of time before we can work through the proposed legislation and publish the it. That is the plan we are working on.
On my behalf and that of my family, I offer my condolences to the family of Mervyn Taylor, and to his friends, colleagues and comrades in the Labour Party.
The starting salary for a secretarial assistant is €24,423.37 per annum. I will save the Tánaiste the trouble of working it out; that is below the living wage. As he knows, secretarial assistants are engaged in conciliation at the Workplace Relations Commission. They are growing increasingly frustrated. This issue has been on the go since 2017. Will the Tánaiste engage with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, and request that he sends officials with decision-making powers to the next conciliation conference in order that this matter can be brought to a close? I remind the Tánaiste that secretarial assistants do fantastic work and enjoy the full support of all politicians and parties, right across this House. We want to see this issue resolved as a matter of priority.
All of us in the House value the work of secretarial assistants. That is true on a cross-party basis. I will certainly mention to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform that Deputy O'Reilly raised the matter and I will pass on the request she has made. I am not sure to what extent it is an issue for the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission more than the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I believe the commission is the employer but I will check that with the Minister.
Residents in Glovers Court flat complex, which is very close to here, have a visible protest highlighting neglect by Dublin City Council and the shocking conditions in which families have to live. Right across Dublin's inner city, residents are living in rat-infested conditions. Dublin City Council has failed in its responsibility to tenants. There is no independent arbitrator to whom residents can bring Dublin City Council. That, in my view, means that the Government needs to step in and ensure that the council does what it needs to do to address the many outstanding maintenance issues. Will the Tánaiste ensure that the council lives up to the duty of care it has to the tenants of its flat complexes?
I thank the Deputy. I appreciate this is an important issue but it is probably more a matter for local government than for central government. I will certainly let the Minister with responsibility for local government know that the Deputy raised the matter.
Is the Tánaiste aware of the alarming trend of urban post offices closing and the impact this is having on communities? In that past year alone in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown constituency, Monkstown and Foxrock post offices have closed. Residents in Dalkey were told this week that their local post office will be closing on Friday, 8 October, and that the postmaster is retiring after 14 years of service. On a personal note, I wish Christopher Good all the very best in his retirement and thank him and his staff for all the work they have done. An Post has advised that it is trying to get another post office into Dalkey but despite its best efforts, it has had no such luck to date. Dalkey is a town of almost 7,000 residents, on a par with Tuam, Ballinasloe and New Ross. It would be unthinkable for such a large town to lose its post office. I note that the programme for Government commits to maintaining the national post office network. Can the Tánaiste advise the House what the Government is doing to retain post offices in urban and rural areas? We do not want to lose any more of them.
I am aware of a number of closures in urban areas, including in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown area. The Deputy has raised the issue before, as has Deputy Carroll MacNeill. It is not so much that An Post or the Government ever decides to close a post office, it is more the case that when the postmaster retires, it can often be difficult to find somebody who is willing to take on the role. The policy of Government is clear that certainly within urban areas, nobody should be more than 5 km away from a post office. That is the policy we are trying to uphold.
I am seeking an update on the proposed introduction of the right to request remote working following the public consultation which closed in May. Rural communities around the country have benefited greatly from people being able to work remotely, and it is undoubtedly a trend that some people will wish to continue. We have seen amazing projects come on stream in Mayo, such as the DigiWest hub in Swinford and the Gteic facilities in the Gaeltacht regions, such as, for example, in Belmullet. Many more broadband connection points, BCPs, are being supplied, which provide additional resources to local entrepreneurs and workers in surrounding communities. We now need to ensure that employees have clarity on their rights to continue this trend if they so choose and guide employers on such requests. I would, therefore, appreciate if the Tánaiste could advise on the up-to-date situation regarding legislation around the right to request remote working, when the legislation will be brought to the Cabinet and when it will be debated in the House.
As part of the remote working strategy, the Government committed to legislating to give workers the right to request remote working. Responsibility for that legislation now falls to me and the Minister of State, Deputy English. We intend to have heads of the Bill - the general scheme - published in this parliamentary session and the legislation itself published in the first quarter of next year, with a view to enactment.
By way of context, I will share a message I received from the owner of a local business in Waterford, a bike shop, as it happens. He told me that the shop got a batch of bikes from the UK at the end of July. All the paperwork was in order but the batch was selected by customs for inspection. The bikes were finally released one month later. Once they go into that process, business owners are totally blind on the progress being made. In this case, two e-bikes had been bought and paid for by a very understanding customer, but it could easily have meant a loss of business for the company. That was only one part of the order that the business in question had placed. Has the Tánaiste any indication of how common and prevalent a problem this is? Is there anything we can do to make the process more transparent so that even if a company has delays, at least they have certainty about when their orders will arrive?
I can certainly see how products behind held up in customs could be a real difficulty for businesses. That is a matter for Revenue rather than for me. If the Deputy wants to pass me on more details, I can get my office to make inquiries with the Revenue Commissioners and see can we get the Deputy a better response.
For more than ten years, Fine Gael has been looking to shut the accident and emergency department in Our Lady's Hospital in Navan. For ten years, the people of Meath have been marching in their tens of thousands to keep it open. Shockingly, in March 2020, the Government went public with the decision to close the accident and emergency department for 12 hours overnight. Covid-19 happened and those plans, thankfully, fell apart.
For the past 18 months, the health service has been battling against Covid without enough staff or beds and, critically, without enough ICU beds. I have learned this week that the board of the HSE has decided to close the accident and emergency department in Navan for overnight periods. I learned this morning that the ICU in Navan is closed today. This is an outrageous situation. The Government should have learned something as regards the number of people who have suffered due to Covid over the past year and a half. Most people caught Covid either in hospitals or nursing home settings and, given that, it is incredible that the Government is looking to cut the capacity in Navan hospital. The Tánaiste worked in the hospital. Will he guarantee that Fine Gael will keep the hospital accident and emergency department open 24-7?
I am not aware of any such decision by the HSE board, but the Deputy may well be correct. My strong view has always been that if the emergency department in a hospital is going to be closed or have its hours reduced, then there is a need to be absolutely sure there is sufficient capacity in other hospitals in the region and that the ambulance service is able to deal with the situation.
As I have said, I am not aware of that decision by the board of the HSE, if such a decision has been made. I have just mentioned it to the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. He is going to check up on it and come back to the Deputy with a further reply.
A number of weeks ago, the Comptroller and Auditor General briefed the Committee of Public Accounts on the amount the State has spent on personal protective equipment, PPE, over the last 18 months. That spend has amounted to more than €1 billion so far. The Comptroller and Auditor General stated that the HSE has written off €375 million worth of PPE thus far. This is an eye-watering figure but it gets worse. This figure includes more than 1,800 ventilators, ordered at a cost of €81 million, which were never received. These were paid for but never received. We all understand there was a clamour for these products internationally and that we had to move very quickly but this is public money, that is, taxpayers' money. Will the Minister launch an investigation into the squandering of all of this public money?
I thank the Deputy for the question. Last year, when I came into office, I requested that the board of the HSE conduct a full audit into the PPE that had been purchased because a huge amount of public money was spent at very short notice in extremely difficult circumstances. That audit has been completed and is being considered by the HSE with a view to ensuring best practice. With regard to the ventilators, the HSE is looking to recover moneys from a company based in China. I am sure the Deputy will be aware of this. There has been public commentary on it. I both agree and disagree with the Deputy. I agree wholeheartedly on the need for best practice and very clear lines of responsibility with regard to all procurement right across the healthcare system. It is a vast budget and every euro that is spent has to be spent in the right way. However, I will sound a note of caution. When we look back at the procurement as Covid was arriving here, the Deputy and I were in the same room, as were many others, when we were being briefed by the Chief Medical Officer and others. We all demanded and insisted that anything that had to be done would be done, that we would not run out of PPE and that we would not run out of ventilators. The HSE did what we asked it to do. I urge us all to remember that we in the Oireachtas demanded immediate action from the HSE. It took that action.
I listened really intently to what the Tánaiste had to say about student accommodation. I also listened to what the Taoiseach said in recent days. He said he was going to keep a close eye on the matter but that there were limits on what Government could do. That tells me, students and their struggling families that the Tánaiste and the Government are completely out of touch with where things are. The Technological University Dublin report estimated that the cost for students who need accommodation is €14,000 a year. That is for one student. Families who have two or three students at third level do not have a hope in hell. We talk about the cost of living. For these students and their families, this is the cost of surviving. Will the Tánaiste now accept that the unaffordability and unavailability of student housing is an absolute emergency? That is what this Government does not get; this is an emergency. We know with certainty how much student accommodation is going to be needed in 20 years' time for babies born today. We know what the percentages involved are. It is completely predictable. Will the Tánaiste commit to funding purpose-built student accommodation? Will he end the conversion of purpose-built student accommodation into tourist accommodation, as I have been asking for months? The year 2022 will be too late.
I thank the Deputy. The Government absolutely acknowledges that we have a severe shortage of student accommodation across the country and that for very many students it is unaffordable while for others it is unavailable. There are many reasons for that. Some are long-standing, some relate to Covid and some relate to the big increase in the number of people attending third level education, which we all welcome. We have a student accommodation strategy that includes measures that have been implemented already such as caps of rent increases and a ban on accommodation providers charging very large lump sums but what is fundamentally required - and I agree with the Deputy on this - is the building of more purpose-built student accommodation on and near campuses. We are giving the universities and technological universities the authority to borrow to do that on a cost-rental basis. However, as the Taoiseach acknowledged, that will take some time.
Like the Tánaiste and all other Members, I did not know about the death of Mervyn Taylor. I extend my sympathy to his family, his extended family and all of his friends. I am sure the Ceann Comhairle will also speak on this.