Wednesday, 6 October 2021
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
Outside this building shortly, thousands of women and their partners will be protesting the failure to resolve the harmful maternity hospital restrictions. We are now almost 20 months into the pandemic yet women are labouring alone and seeing their partners leave after a mere hour spent with their newborn child.
The demand of the campaigners is to return to pre-Covid circumstances for one essential partner. This is in no way unworkable. The fact is that the HSE and the Minister for Health have not pursued this as an objective; they have merely paid lip service to it. The reality is that it is within the Minister's gift to set this as a destination and to make sure that the objective is to return to the pre-Covid restrictions. He has not done so to date. Will he do so? Will the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage ask him to do so, and join with the women and their partners who are outside? They should not have to be there.
The Government has said publicly that we believe maternity hospitals should have open access, as much as possible, for partners. I ask maternity hospitals again today to facilitate that access. The Minister, Deputy Donnelly, has done so and the Taoiseach has said it. Let us, therefore, be honest with people first.
I will bring back the Deputy's views. I know women are there today, and I fully understand what they are asking for and what they should have. They should have access for their partners to the maternity hospital. The Minister, Deputy Donnelly, has made that clear too. I very much take on board the issue the Deputy has raised, however.
I am going to give the Minister another go at this question. As the Minister will be aware, the march for maternity is being led by Linda Kelly, who is somebody I know really well. It is desperate that they have to do this. I have been raising this issue. I think I was first to raise it well over a year ago when a good friend told me about how she got very bad news on her own and then had to drive home from the hospital. That hospital still has not pushed back all the restrictions.
I have a very simple question for the Minister. I am not saying this for political reasons but who is in charge? How can it be that these restrictions are not unilaterally lifted, and that in some locations, they are still in place? It is barbaric. The Minister for Health must ensure that these restrictions are lifted. The date of 22 October is literally not acceptable.
I assure Deputy Kelly that the Government understands this. It is a very serious issue for women and their partners. The latest guidance was published on 3 September with an implementation date of 13 September, and that clearly sets out the controls and access for partners as well. I know the Minister for Health appeared before the Joint Committee on Health this morning to deal with other matters. I will certainly raise this matter directly with him.
The Deputy will also know that clinicians at a local hospital level will make decisions they believe is appropriate for them, many of which, I will be honest, I do not agree with. I have met with and listened to women who have been in this situation of having partners waiting in cars for hours and coming in for a half an hour or an hour. That is not something that I think is right. It is not right and no one can stand over that. I again ask those hospitals that have restrictions in place now to remove them and allow unfettered access.
On the same issue, as we speak, people are gathering outside for the march for maternity to call for an end to restrictions on partners attending maternity services. This has been a consistent call from families for more than a year now. Women are separated from the partners for much of their labour, visiting hours are still severely curtailed and partners are still banned from attending antenatal scans. How much of this a person is subjected to is still a complete geographical lottery.
The situation is now growing so farcical that from 22 October, a person will be able to attend a nightclub but partners will still be told to wait in the car park when they arrive at a maternity hospital for the birth of their child. What is the Government's response to the many woman outside the Dáil right now and the many protesting remotely, some of whom are doing so from maternity hospitals? They are saying that the Government urging hospitals to do something simply is not good enough and obviously is not working. The question, therefore, still remains - who is in charge and what is the Government going to do about this?
The Deputy might let me answer this one. It is a very serious and emotive issue on what is for many families a very special day. We must also recognise the fact that we are still living with Covid-19 in the community right now.
I have been very clear in what I have said today. The Government has issued guidance on it. The HSE is committed to keeping any restrictions that are in place under review. Let us be straight with people as well. Covid-19 is still in the community. People are still being hospitalised with Covid. We have to manage those who are vaccinated, and, perhaps, also those who have symptoms and assess how that can be managed. I think most of us through the pandemic - not all, but most - have respected and taken on board clinicians' advice.
In this instance, though, I have been very clear on what I have said on maternity hospitals. Where hospitals can allow unfettered access, they should. The Minister for Health has also been very clear on that.
This morning, in response to the People Before Profit motion seeking a deferral on carbon taxes to prevent further winter deaths and fuel poverty, the Government reiterated its promise or commitment to continue with increases in the carbon tax.
Can the Minister explain how the Government can morally justify how the Taoiseach, the Minister for Finance and the Government have spent weeks now trying to minimise efforts to make Facebook, Google and Amazon, which are some of the wealthiest corporations in the world, pay a little bit more tax. The Government tries to stop, resist and frustrate that, but, at the same time, it defends imposing further carbon taxes on the old, poor and vulnerable when this may actually result in winter deaths, fuel poverty and incredible hardship after all the energy price hikes.
In any measures the Government takes to tackle climate change, and where carbon taxes are required, we need to ensure and have ensured that we also tackle fuel poverty in that space.
This has been debated last night and today and will be voted on by the Dáil later this evening. The Government has outlined its position, which is a realistic one.
We will ensure measures we bring in to protect against fuel poverty for the most vulnerable will guard against any of those increases due to carbon tax increases. We also have to be real about climate change. It is happening and we need to change behaviour, the Deputy knows that.
I will shortly introduce a maternity care Bill, which will deal with the crisis in the maternity sector. First, I will raise the issue in Navan hospital. Its emergency department is set to be closed by this Government and the HSE. Over the past 20 months, the frontline of Covid has been emergency service beds and ICUs. The Minister has even mentioned the reason we cannot have normal rules in maternity hospitals is the continued threat from Covid. The Minister for Health talked yesterday about extending the most draconian restrictions in Europe, because of the threat of Covid. Yet, this Government seeks to close ICU and accident and emergency beds in Navan now. One could not make it up. On one hand the Minister is saying there is a crisis, which has led to the deaths of 5,200 and, on the other, the Government is now looking to close the frontline of those services. There will be 10,000 marching on the streets of Meath this month.
Ministers never get back to me on any questions I have asked from this side of the Dáil. The Tánaiste said the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, would get back to me on this question just last week and nobody ever comes back. It is purely for theatre and the frustration-----
The fanfare and dust has settled in Páirc Uí Chaoimh after the re-hash of the NDP. The Government picked a suitable venue to kick the ball around the place and kick it over and back between different parties and party leaders. The people of Tipperary Town are extremely disappointed. Jobs4Tipp, March4Tipp, County Tipperary Chamber and Councillor Anne Marie Ryan, and many others, are devastated the bypass for Tipperary town, on which the Taoiseach glibly answered me here last week, was ignored completely. There was no mention of it. We have to have the bypass of Tipperary town, based on the footprint of the new M24 from Limerick to Waterford, on which huge work has been done. It is almost shovel ready. The design stage is under way. One cannot live in the town. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, and the Taoiseach know that. We must get a mention of that. We cannot have the ball just be kicked around the can kicked down the road. Stay away from Páirc Uí Chaoimh, because it is sometimes not a good place for Dublin either. People have to get some certainty.
As Deputy McGrath will know, the NDP commits Government to an overall investment of €165 billion in infrastructure, throughout the country, which is unprecedented. I will raise the matter of the Tipperary town bypass, on the Deputy's behalf. This is the first time we have an NDP here that is fully funded. It is now about delivery of these projects, to which Government is really committed. I will raise the project the Deputy mentioned with the Taoiseach and the Minister for Transport.
I will ask about respite care in County Donegal. On 25 May, I asked the Minister, Deputy Ryan, the same question on the Order of Business. He told me he would refer to the relevant Minister for response and, as usual, we have no response. I have heard nothing since. Is it a case there is no relevant Minister or that the Minister is not relevant? Either way, the issue is still an ongoing problem throughout Donegal. That day, I asked specifically about the restoration of a seven-day service, by operators Rehab, to Seaview House in Mountcharles. With regard to Riverwalk House in Carndonagh, people have contacted me who have not had respite in three years. This inadequate provision is compounded by other factors such as the lack of available supervision for ancillary services and families being refused the July provision. The knock-on, detrimental effects on the well-being and mental health of families is huge. I see it first hand in my offices every day. Will the Government please make adequate provision for respite care or at least provide straight answers to our questions?
I am sorry the Deputy feels previous questions he has asked on respite care in Donegal have not been adequately answered. I will take his word on that and commit to talking to the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, and his officials today to make sure the Deputy receives a comprehensive answer on respite care. The Government has made significant strides in the past 12 months on the provision of respite care and additional resources. That has, obviously, been hampered by Covid as well, but I will ensure the Deputy gets a comprehensive answer on the questions he asked. At least, he will be aware of what information is in that space. I will do that today.
Approximately one in 20 people in Ireland lives with diabetes. Despite this, we do not have a good handle on clinical outcomes or prevalence rates at a geographical level. This means we cannot provide the appropriate services where they are needed. University Hospital Limerick is one of the few model 4 hospitals that does not offer a DAFNE course for managing type 1 diabetes. Without this training, patients run the risk of developing life-altering complications. This is a terrible outcome for the patient and much more expensive for the State to manage in the long run. I am aware work on the national diabetes register was paused due to Covid and there is no timeline for when that work will be restarted. When might we expect a timeline to be published for the resumption of work on the national diabetes register?
I thank the Deputy for her question on diabetes care. I have visited a centre in Santry that is providing significant new treatments for diabetes and treating people with difficult health issues and having a really positive effect. The community-based treatments needed for managing chronic diseases are clearly highlighted in Sláintecare, as to how that roll-out happens. As best as possible, we need to see an expedited delivery of that for diabetes and others, which are prevalent throughout the country. That is something the Government is committed to doing in this space, in particular. We have seen some advances, especially in diabetes care, in the past few years, on which we intend to build.
I raise the confusion arising from Revenue sending letters to homeowners about the changes to the local property tax, including the need to reassess their homes. I know homeowners have to value their properties in order for Revenue to set a new rate for the next four years, but they are being sent to revenue.ie, where a residential property price register is available. It is not working. There is huge confusion. Many people have come into my offices. There is confusion over the prices and confusion if one has a standalone home. To make it worse, there is only one helpline from Monday to Friday, for older people who do not go online to use the services. There is huge confusion here. Can we get the communication sorted? The last time local property tax forms were given out, there was a barcode at the bottom of it and one went into the Post Office and could pay whatever one could off it or pay in full. There is no barcode on it this time. I rang the helpline and they have been very kind and good to people. One can pay in the Post Office. None of this is on the form. Can we please get better communication?
What Revenue is involved in concerns legislation we passed before the recess on the review of the local property tax. One of the reasons for that is to ensure all those properties built since it was brought in are brought into the net, to fund local government. I know the Deputy supports that, in particular. Now is the revaluation period, when we ask people to submit what they believe is a true valuation of their property, within bands. We have widened the bands and decreased the rate. Most people will not see any increase in their local property tax, which funds local government to the tune of more than half a billion euro per year, which is very important. If anyone has any issues with the tracker online, which I have checked, I will raise the matter with the Department of Finance.
In the national development plan, there was a section hailing the delivery of a new special school in Carrigaline in County Cork. The reality is the special school is not accessible for most of the children, because, 25 of the 32 children do not have school transport in place. Parents are very upset. Some parents are taking time off work.
Most people cannot take time off work. Most of them are unable to bring these children to school because they have other children attending school nearer to where they are living. The education and training board, ETB, and Bus Éireann are picking up the pieces of Government's failed overpromising and underdelivering. Can the Minister commit to restoring insurance transport for some of the most vulnerable children in society? School started back six weeks ago and these kids need to get back to school.
In the area of social protection, the programme for Government commits to recognising the importance of ancillary benefits and eligibility criteria to vulnerable groups, while noting that we all have a stake in a strong social protection system. It also commits to improving and changing disability services through better implementation and collaboration. However, we currently have an anomaly in our social protection system. Disability allowance is means-tested. The payment of a mortgage by a person who is on disability payment is not taken into account. If this person lets out rooms in his or her house, that is treated as income. I have a case where a person is paying a mortgage of €1,000 a month but is only allowed to have €160 deducted from the rent that is coming in. That person, who has multiple sclerosis, therefore is only getting a disability allowance of €50 per week. This is the wrong way of dealing with it. The regulation is wrong and it needs to be amended.
I thank Deputy Colm Burke for his question. It is a timely one as we are coming into budget week. Post budget, we will have a social welfare Bill. I suggest that we could then raise these matters directly with the Minister for Social Protection to see whether any changes can be made to deal with them.
Galway city has been plagued with vacant sites and vacant homes for the last number of years. Just last week, I walked through Galway city centre and took a look at the number of vacant homes. At the same time, thousands of people are on the housing waiting list, thousands of people are paying huge rents and thousands of people are locked out of homeownership. Just this week, we saw the launch of the national development plan. One of its themes is about moving people and seeing populations grow in cities outside of Dublin and in rural areas. However, it has very little on specifics regarding infrastructure, be they roads, the western rail corridor or whatever. On the issue of vacant homes specifically, we cannot continue in Galway city to see these vacant homes and vacant sites lying idle, while so many people are locked out of secure accommodation. Can the Minister commit to stop this?
It is a fair question. There is an issue with vacancy right across the country. One of the pathways in the Housing for All programme deals with vacancy. We will be providing significant funding to our local authorities to deal with vacancy through the Croí Cónaithe cities and towns funds, as well as through a new compulsory purchase order, CPO, programme. We will manage that through the Housing Agency, that is, to compulsorily purchase some of those vacant properties to get them back into use for first-time buyers. In addition, we will increase and expand the repair and leasing scheme, which I have already brought forward and is now in place. We have a detailed plan with regard to vacancy, backed by real finance, in Housing for All. That will apply to every city, town and village right across the country. There is no question but that current, existing stock that is not in use can be put to productive use. I intend to do that.
While this is not necessarily the Minister’s area of expertise, I would like to talk to him about special education and of the case of Calum Geary, whose father, Andrew Geary, I met last week. The Minister might have seen them pour their hearts out to the nation a couple of months ago on "The Late Late Show". Calum is profoundly deaf and has no access to an Irish Sign Language teacher or interpreter in class, as is his constitutional right. I ask the Minister what the Government will do to ensure the full implementation of the Irish Sign Language Act, and provide for the education and constitutional rights of these children?
I thank the Deputy for raising the case of Calum Geary himself, who is an example of many others in this position. Our own party and this Government have always prioritised special education, making sure that children who need assistance and help from the State to reach their potential will get it. We need to make sure that is done for Calum specifically. As for the Irish Sign Language Act, the provisions within it and when it is being rolled out and effected, I will take that matter up directly with the Minister for Education. If I can give the Deputy any assistance as he continues to advocate for Calum and his family, I certainly will.
I want to raise the serious issues and challenges raising farmers’ livelihoods and that of the agricultural sector. Irish farmers are facing some key challenges around the climate action Bill, CAP reform and eco-schemes, as well as in respect of Government supports for the agricultural sector. It is critical that the Government increases funding to deliver proper supports to our most vulnerable livestock, sheep and tillage sectors. I come from a rural constituency where suckler and sheep farming is of an enormous importance to our rural economy. Farmers need targeted payments of €300 per suckler cow and €30 per ewe. I ask the Minister that he relays this message back to the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, as well as to his Cabinet colleagues. We need to protect farmers’ incomes and the rural economy into the future, on the back of some serious reform.
The rural economy and agriculture remain, and will continue to be, an important part of our economy. More importantly, they will remain important parts of rural Ireland. I will raise directly with the Minister the matters Deputy Dillon has raised regarding farm incomes, how these will be struck with regard to a new CAP deal and the flexibilities that will be allowed around alternatives to supplement farming income. The Government will seriously look at these. I will raise the points that the Deputy has brought up here directly with the Minister, Deputy McConalogue. I will ask him to respond to the Deputy.
In the programme for Government there is a clear commitment to integrity, high standards and transparency. In recent days, we learned that the Attorney General has been doing private work while at the same time working for the Government. That was going on for almost 18 months after his appointment. I suggest that in the interests of that commitment to integrity in the programme for Government, some regulation needs to be put in place. There should be, at a minimum, a time limit as to when the Attorney General would dispose of private work of that nature-----
In the interest of transparency, it would be useful were the Government to publish and make clear what work the Attorney General was undertaking during that time, in order that there is no inference from any side as to the integrity of the Attorney General or, indeed, of the office he holds.
The irony is not lost on me that the Member opposite from Sinn Féin is raising the issue of transparency and integrity with us. Leaving that aside, the role of the Attorney General is to advise Government in matters of law and legal opinion. He is exceptionally hard-working, as the Deputy knows. He serves the Government extremely well. The Deputy will be aware that this is second time the Attorney General has served in this particular role. The matters the Deputy has raised have been dealt with quite clearly. They have been raised in this House and they have been dealt with publicly.
Taoiseach - my apologies - that was a Freudian slip. The question was for the Taoiseach and the Minister looks comfortable in the role.
To follow on from previous Members, page 85 of the programme for Government refers to the reform of the judicial process and courts, while page 120 refers to transparency and enhancing democracy. I ask the Minister to raise a matter with the Taoiseach for report to the House. Given the role of the Attorney General in the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board, in the appointment of judges and in the promotion of judges to higher courts, can the Minister advise the House whether, in the course of the Attorney General's concluding of his private work of which we have been informed in the media, any judges before whom the Attorney General appeared in his private capacity since his appointment have since been promoted to a higher court? Could he inform the House of that?
I advise the Deputy that in relation to judicial appointments themselves, the judicial appointments commission Bill will be published in this session. We intend to do that in this session. That can be debated fully at that stage.
We are committed to reforming-----
The exponential rise in the use of data has led to an exponential rise in the number of data centres. Some people think data is stored in clouds but it is not. It is always stored in centres. The solution proposed by some is to transfer the data to another country that may use even more energy to store it. The Government's response to this is "Problem; what problem?". There is a problem. All of these data giants are headquartered in Ireland. Does that not give Ireland a unique opportunity, if not a responsibility, to consider how the growing need for data can be addressed and met? Will the Government meet with environmental groups and the data giants - these huge companies - in order to identify how this issue might be addressed? Moving the problem to another country is not going to solve it as long as all of us use more data every day.
The Deputy has raised a fair point. Some people are of the view that we should ban data centres from the country and not allow any more to be built. However, we have to work with them to ensure that we improve our energy security. The Government continues to make major strides in that area in order to ensure our energy supply is secure and, indeed, diverse. Measures such as the Maritime Area Planning Bill, which has passed Second Stage, will help us harness our offshore renewable resources in a more efficient manner. Deputy Howlin is well aware of that too.
To answer the Deputy's question, I will relay his concerns directly to the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications. The Deputy has made a good suggestion.
I refer to the cities fund the Minister has announced in House for All. This is really important in a constituency like mine where there are 11,000 homes in the pipeline, many of which will be more than four stories tall. Will the Minister give an indication of the scale of support he plans under the scheme, the number of homes involved, the level of subsidy that is likely to be applied and the starting date for the scheme?
I thank Deputy Bruton for his support, for his contribution on matters relating to housing and for his commitment in his constituency to delivering affordable homes for people in his area, across Dublin, and the country. Croí Cónaithe is an important fund that will help unlock and deal with the viability issue. We are working through the specific mechanisms around how subsidies will work. The subsidy will be passed on to the homeowner. It will be for owner-occupiers only and will be equivalent to the VAT amount that would have been paid on a particular apartment. Many people have sought a VAT reduction or cancellation, but we believe this is a better way of doing it. We will open the fund up to a call. We will manage specific calls that come to us through my Department. They will be considered in regard to value for money and ensuring there is delivery of housing because we need to achieve the level of building 33,000 homes a year, which we will achieve with the assistance of the Croí Cónaithe fund.
I wish to raise a case about an Irish citizen who fled here from Iraq after the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS, took over Mosul. His father and other close family members were murdered. He is currently in Ireland, but his mother remains in limbo, effectively, in Turkey and has been for years. This is the third time I have raised this case in the Dáil. I previously raised it with the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste and I am now raising it with the Minister. I have asked multiple parliamentary questions and sent multiple letters to the Minister for Justice, with many going unanswered. The answer is very simple: the family must be allowed to be reunified on a humanitarian basis. I ask the Government to do this. It is a simple humanitarian request.
I am not familiar with this specific case; I genuinely am not. The Deputy knows of the Government's response to the recent, and continuing, crisis in Afghanistan and other countries. We have been open, and rightly so, to giving people safe harbour here. On the repatriation and reunification of families, this is something that Ireland does pretty well. In regard to this specific case, I do not want to give the Deputy an answer he has received previously. I do not have the details but if the Deputy provides them, I assure him that I will raise the matter specifically with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Taoiseach.
I thank the members for their co-operation. On the point raised by Deputy Tóibín, it is important that if a Minister gives an undertaking on behalf of the Government to come back to a Member, they should do so. I am anxious to hear from Members who have not received replies they were promised in order that we might investigate the matter and see what can be done.