Tuesday, 28 September 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
They are not agreed. This morning, we heard very harrowing news about an investigation being carried out at Cork University Maternity Hospital after it emerged that the organs of 18 babies were transported abroad and disposed of by incineration without the consent or knowledge of their parents. I am sure we can only imagine the extreme hurt and distress that those families are now experiencing. This is not the first scandal and upset around organ retention and matters arising from this, however. It is beyond belief that we are at this point again.
As the Taoiseach will know, what happened in Cork University Maternity Hospital is in breach of HSE guidelines that go back to 2012 arising from a previous scandal. We need answers. We need to know why this happened. As a matter of urgency, time needs to be made available for the Minister for Health to appear before the House to make a statement, take questions and give answers to the Dáil, but, more importantly, to start to give answers and assurances to those families, in particular, and to the wider community.
We want to add our support to this call. How was this allowed to happen? It happened under the pressure of the pandemic, which bore down on every Irish hospital. Did anything similar happen in any other Irish hospital as the pandemic loomed? We want time to be made available this week for statements on this issue, and, in particular, for questions and answers with the Minister.
It is the same issue. We need a debate on this. It is truly shocking. It actually did not happen during the pandemic. It happened in the November before the pandemic arrived on our shores so we cannot blame the pandemic for everything. It is truly outrageous that this could go on, but, of course, the Government ushered in abortion here so can we expect anything better?
First, I appreciate the issue that Deputies McDonald, Barry and McGrath have raised. It is very difficult to comprehend how this occurred because this was the subject of a very exhaustive and comprehensive inquiry in the past across every single hospital in the country. The Dunne inquiry would have been involved in that.
That this was done without the consent or knowledge of the bereaved parents is cruel and unacceptable. I would certainly be anxious to facilitate a debate in the House and for questions to be asked. I believe the Minister is seeking assurances from every other site across the country that this did not occur. There are two inquiries and I understand that a review is under way within the HSE at the moment. With that said, I understand fully the desire of the House to have some debate and the issue raised in respect of the parents concerned. We will certainly facilitate that on this side of the House.
I thank the Taoiseach. We will make arrangements immediately after the Order of Business to consult the Business Committee and to make time available in light of what has been said. Can I take it, therefore, that the proposed arrangements for the week are now agreed? Agreed. I call Deputy McDonald on promised legislation.
Last week, the Taoiseach's colleague, the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, enraged hard-pressed renters when he said that "one person's rent is another person's income".
Not to be outdone by him, this week the Taoiseach's man, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, told reporters the property market is not "out of control".
On what planet are these men living? Rents are way above the Celtic tiger peak, house prices are getting there too, homelessness is endemic and families are on council housing waiting lists for an eternity, some for 14 years and more. Even so, the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, the Taoiseach's man, the man charged with fixing housing, does not believe the property market is out of control. It is this kind of clueless, out-of-touch thinking behind the Minister's housing plan that means we again have a plan that puts developers and investors first. Will the Taoiseach get a grip on this crisis, drop his recycled, failed policies and deliver a plan that works for people?
The Minister has produced Housing for All, an unprecedented, comprehensive strategy backed, in an unprecedented way, by resources to make a far greater number of houses available to enable people to buy houses and afford them. More than 90,000 social houses will be delivered over the period of the plan, along with thousands of cost rental and so forth. I have always stated that housing is the number one social crisis of our time and it needs everyone in this House on board. The Deputy and her party need to get a grip with it and not just in a knee-jerk way oppose every application that comes before them because it will get them votes in particular constituencies. That is not getting a grip on it either-----
It will be the largest number of social houses built in the history of the State. It needs delivery, but to get delivery we need to ensure all of us in this House show leadership in respect of the housing applications that come before us from here on. Otherwise, there is no point in having this kind of across-the-aisle stuff about how one group should get a grip on the issue when the Deputy does not play her part either.
The Minister for Transport, who also has responsibility for environmental issues, delivered what can only be described as a punch in the gut to the people of Swords and the north side of Dublin by deferring and delaying the delivery of MetroLink to 2034. Many people believe it is the indefinite deferral and delay of MetroLink. The programme for Government not only mentions MetroLink but states, "the Government will prioritise plans for the delivery of Metrolink". Deputy Micheál Martin is the Taoiseach, the chief, the boss. Will he assure the House and the people of Swords and north Dublin that the Government is still committed to Metrolink; that once the railway order goes through and planning permission is given, work will begin as soon as possible; and that the Government will deliver MetroLink as close as possible to 2027 and not push it out to 2034, as the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has said? Will the Taoiseach give that commitment today?
The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is the one Minister in this House who wants that to happen. That is what he wants. He has not delayed anything; he just gave a realistic assessment of where things are and are likely to be, given the planning issues and so on. Be under no illusion, it is a priority and the national development plan will deal with that issue as well. One has to be honest and realistic, and the realistic and honest comments of the Minister were translated into a suggestion he is delaying the project. That is a completely wrong interpretation.
People with disabilities in Ireland vastly and disproportionately experience greater poverty and social exclusion. Disgracefully, it took Ireland more than ten years to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and we are still awaiting the ratification of the optional protocol, which crucially enables people to enforce their rights acknowledged in the convention. The programme for Government commits to ratifying the optional protocol after the first reporting cycle, but it is now very likely this schedule will delay the ratification by several years. People with disabilities cannot wait that long to be able to guarantee their rights. Human rights and legal experts have told the Joint Committee on Disability Matters we can ratify the optional protocol immediately if the political will is there.
There is no reason for any further delay. Will the Government please prioritise the ratification of the optional protocol immediately?
The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is working on the ratification process. In the meantime, we are allocating substantial resources across the board in respect of children with special needs, both in education and in the healthcare area. More critically, we must work on facilitating people with disabilities to work in the workplace as well-----
As I have said, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, will work on that. If the Deputy wants my honest perspective on things, one can ratify conventions, but we need the system and we need people to work and deliver. That is the most pressing issue for me right now.
Does the Taoiseach honestly believe that a measly once-off bank holiday and a few other crumbs from the table will satisfy the demand of front-line workers for a Covid bonus? These workers risked their lives and their health and suffered fatigue, stress and all types of mental health pressures to help to pull this society through the worst of the crisis. Workers in the public and private sectors alike deserve proper compensation. Does the Taoiseach accept that our society includes so-called high net worth individuals and some corporations that benefitted financially from the Covid-19 pandemic in a massively disproportionate way? Why would he not introduce a special one-off Covid wealth tax in the forthcoming budget and pay Covid bonuses from the revenues raised?
I thought the Deputy was against wealth taxes given that he votes against most of the taxes on wealth when they are introduced in the House. However, to be serious for a moment, the Ministers, Deputies Michael McGrath and Donohoe, are working on the recognition of front-line healthcare workers-----
I very much welcome the proposal being floated at present to establish a specific task force to tackle the ever-growing hospital waiting lists in Naas General Hospital and every hospital in the country. If the vaccine task force under Professor Brian MacCraith has taught us anything, it is that if one assembles the right people with the right skills and the right resources, one can achieve world-class outcomes. I am greatly supportive of the concept and the principle. My concern is always about the implementation. Can the Taoiseach indicate when this task force is likely to be established and when it will be up and running?
I agree with the Deputy that the vaccine task force did an exceptional job. It was multidisciplinary and involved different aspects of the public sector and some of the private sector. Our vaccination record of 93.5% of adults is an extraordinary achievement for the country and reflects very well on all concerned. The waiting list initiative is now key. As we emerge from Covid-19 we simply must reduce the times that people are waiting to get procedures. The Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, will develop proposals for the establishment of a task force. That is imminent as we expect to have the proposals outlined within the next week or two.
I have a question for the Taoiseach about a reply I received today to a parliamentary question regarding the winter plan. The winter plan promises 23.62 million home support hours, but the HSE is currently only delivering 11.4 million. This is chronic. To refer to the last question, the hospitals will be full while people cannot get home support. As it faces into the winter plan, at what point is the HSE going to be upfront and deliver this? There are 2,156 people across the country waiting for new or additional home help hours, and 894 are in County Tipperary. Families and carers are getting sick and if that is not dealt with, the hospitals crisis will be much worse. Hospitals are already overcrowded, so what is the point of producing figures if the HSE is not going to deliver? It is very frustrating for people trying to ring and beg and scrounge to get home help hours. Then they are getting sick when they do not have any supports.
I am surprised the Deputy is raising that issue. I am informed that nobody in south Tipperary is waiting for home help hours as of the end of August.
If the Deputy talks to the Minister of State, Deputy Butler-----
One of the issues facing the sector is getting enough skilled workers into the home care sector. That is our biggest challenge now. More than €5 million was allocated last year which has had a dramatic impact on reducing the waiting times and also had an impact on the flow through hospitals. The issue will be getting personnel to work in the sector.
In 1984, Patrick Nugent died at Bunratty from injuries sustained. The following year the jury at his inquest stated that it was far from satisfied as to the circumstances under which Patrick Nugent sustained the injuries which caused his death and called on the Minister for Justice to investigate the matter further. It took until 2017 for an inquiry to be established by Judge Clyne. He reported to the Department of Justice on 31 October last year. Since then I have asked the Department numerous times what is happening and have been told that it is being reviewed by the Attorney General. While the Department is hiding behind the Attorney General, the only person answerable to this House for the Attorney General is the Taoiseach. He is reputed to be a very hard-working Attorney General. What is the delay? This family has waited long enough for a report into what happened to their son and brother in 1984.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. We have received the advice of the Attorney General and having considered that advice the Department of Justice has invited the Nugent family to a meeting to explain the next steps regarding Judge Clyne's final report. This meeting is due to take place in person next week. I appreciate that Mr. Nugent's family are most anxious to receive the outcome of Judge Clyne's investigation.
I want to ascertain the Government's intentions regarding the position of directly elected mayor for Limerick city and county. As the Taoiseach will be aware, this election has already been postponed once this year and now according to newspaper reports it will be postponed again. What is the reason for these postponements? What are the Government's intentions when and if the election takes place?
Obviously, it is the Government's intention to get the legislation passed through the House and that will affect the timeline for the subsequent election to take place. It really depends on getting the legislation through.
The programme for Government commits to a Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment to prioritise insurance reform. The survival of an outdoor business in Bray is threatened by high insurance costs as are many community groups, sporting groups and businesses. I look forward to meeting the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, later to discuss what we can do for Squirrel's Scramble in Bray and the others affected. We need to reduce the cost of insurance, the number of cases and the number of awards made. I ask the Taoiseach to give me a progress update on insurance reform.
I thank the Deputy for raising the matter. Tomorrow I am meeting the organisation the Deputy mentioned along with Deputies from the constituency. The Government has issued an action plan for insurance. A key element has been the introduction of the new personal injury guidelines which came into effect before the summer. The Minister for Justice will produce a report on their implementation at the end of this year. I am chairing the office that is promoting competition in the insurance area. I have met IDA Ireland to encourage new businesses to come into Ireland. Most of the actions in the action plan are already in place. On two occasions I have met the chief executives of all the insurance companies to ensure that they pass on these reductions. I will meet representatives of Brokers Ireland immediately after this session.
Earlier the Taoiseach said he was very committed to regional development, particularly in the west and north west. Towns like Ballyhaunis are leading the way in driving the recovery after the challenging time rural areas have had and indeed after the collapse of the banking system.
The excellent work done by the Ballyhaunis Chamber of Commerce, Ballyhaunis Community Council and other voluntary groups and individuals in the town is widely acknowledged. This work makes Ballyhaunis an attractive town to live and work in and these organisations and individuals are to the forefront of inclusiveness in rural development. For months, the threatened closure of the Bank of Ireland branch in Ballyhaunis has cast a shadow over this town and surrounding area. For a financial institution to be allowed to turn its back and withdraw these vital services runs contrary to the programme for Government aim of revitalising small towns. If he has not done so, can the Taoiseach and his Minister for Finance meet the banking executives and ask them to reconsider their decision to close this branch and to engage with the chamber of commerce and community council in the town in this regard?
Bank of Ireland is a private institution and it makes its own decisions. The Government has decided to focus its work through An Post and through other initiatives such as the remote working hubs and enterprise centres, plus the Housing for All and Town Centre First strategies. We are using our mechanisms on a number of fronts to revitalise towns and to get investment back into towns. When we have met the banks, we have repeatedly stressed the need for them to retain and maintain their regional and rural footprints as well as the importance of that to the commercial viability of towns. Where the Government itself has control of the levers, it is anxious to put investment into towns such as Ballyhaunis.
A constituent of mine, Patricia, recently applied for a passport for her four-year old daughter, which is a common undertaking for a parent. What should have been a routine task has been anything but that. Patricia and her wife went to court to be recognised as their daughter's legal parents. They waited for parental recognition of same-sex couples by the Oireachtas and they waited for section 21 to be signed into law. To be then told that she cannot apply for a passport because she is not the birth parent adds insult to injury with a trowel. This is not good enough. For how much longer will children such as Patricia's daughters be discriminated against because of the gender of their parents?
This issue is not acceptable but it will need change. That is being pursued on a number of fronts, not just in the context of the case the Deputy has identified but it has wider implications for other cases as well and that has to be corrected.
We will soon see the NDP. Will it address the serious issues in early childhood provision, where we have a massive scarcity of childcare places? Most of these places provide less than 20 hours per week. We have a lot of public assets through which childcare opportunities are not being opened. Could we see the start of a strategy for capital and development planning in the early childhood sector in the NDP?
The NDP is fundamentally about the allocation of capital funding, which dovetails and aligns with current policies and programmes that individual Departments and the Government collectively have identified and prioritised. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, in particular, has identified the requirements for childcare into the future in terms of the funding that will be required over the lifetime of the plan and in terms of the Estimates on a multi-annual basis. That is the context in which childcare policy will evolve. One of the challenges facing childcare policy has been how it has evolved historically, unlike other educational provision. From age zero to six, we have a multiplicity of different groups and providers from State actors to the private and community sectors. It is not easy to get a single solution to it if we are honest about it. That is the problem with the challenge we face.
With regard to work permits, there is a severe shortage of labour in virtually all sectors across the country. The same is happening in Northern Ireland. It came to a head in recent weeks when a meat processing plant in Northern Ireland, which takes a lot of pigs from the South, was forced to close because of a shortage of labour. This had a huge impact on pig prices in the South.
There is a major shortage of labour at the moment in all sectors, whether it is in hospitality, tourism or agrifood. We need to urgently revisit the issue of work permits. This needs to be speeded up and streamlined as quickly as possible.
I accept the Deputy's point. There is without question an issue with work permits, visas and ensuring we have an adequate labour supply in the market right now. One dimension of it was discussed earlier in terms of upskilling and providing a range of skills, which is being done to an unprecedented degree. The other aspect we have to urgently review, and this is now under way in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, under the Minster of State, Deputy Damien English, is the work permit system, to facilitate a faster and more flexible approach to get people into sectors where there are considerable shortages right now.
Tom McHugh worked as an assistant chief officer, ACO, in Portlaoise Prison. In October 2018, a prisoner came to the governor of that prison and said that other officers were constantly coming to his cell and, in his words, wanting him to cut up Tom HcHugh. This is just one of example of what an ACO in our prisons has experienced. He was vindicated by the Naughton report. There was a Garda investigation and a "Prime Time" investigation into this matter. I have raised this with the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the current and previous Ministers for Justice and the Minister of State in that Department, yet, 18 months later, this public servant has still not been able to go back to work because the same conditions pertain in that prison.
We have a situation this week where four officers are being investigated for going on the beer while they were bringing a gangland criminal from prison to court. I spoke to a senior person in the Irish Prison Service, IPS, today who said the crisis is so severe in the service that someone will be found dead soon. After all that has been said to the Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice, when will this matter be dealt with?
During the previous Dáil, I raised the plight of Clonkeen College in Dún Laoghaire on multiple occasions. It is a non-fee paying, publicly funded school run by the Christian Brothers, who have decided to sell off the school playing fields to a private property developer. Since the previous Government would not listen, I ask the current Government to intervene to stop the sale of school pitches that have had heavy amounts of public investment, where there is an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit that depends on those playing areas and where there is a local sports clubs with a chronic shortage of playing pitch space throughout the area. These will all lose out to essentially benefit a private property developer. If it is not acceptable for most people that a religious charity should decide the future of the national maternity hospital, it is equally unacceptable that publicly funded schools run by religious charities should flog off school facilities to property developers. Will the Taoiseach do something about it?
The Christian Brothers should not be selling off those playing fields. They should be made available to the people, clubs and young people in the area. That is the proper thing to do. Do I have the legal power to enforce that? I do not believe I do. I will certainly follow this matter up with the Minister for Education to see what persuasion can be applied but in situations like that, given the scarcity of amenity and recreational land in such locations, it should be retained for the purposes of recreation and sport for the local community.
Once again we are struck by the spectre of the British Government playing games with the Northern Ireland protocol. Unionist politicians are doing it down once again today and Article 16 is being discussed as a political plaything in the lead-up to domestic political conferences. What is the Government doing with our partners in the EU to ensure the British Government meet its legally binding commitments?
The Government remains focused, calm, flexible and in solution mode on the protocol and on the relationship between the EU and UK.
There must be political will on all sides. There cannot be unilateralism, which is the opposite perspective to that of the Good Friday Agreement. Unilateralism is the opposite type of impulse than that represented by the Good Friday Agreement. My sense, until recently, was that the British Government was anxious to work with the EU to get a resolution. European Commission Vice President, Maroš Šefčovič, went to Northern Ireland and met all the parties and had good engagement with them. That was acknowledged by those parties. I had quite a lengthy meeting with him the previous evening. There is a route to getting this issue resolved. It is extremely important that people do not do anything that would further destabilise the situation in Northern Ireland. In my view, the institutions and their stability are paramount.