Thursday, 7 October 2021
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
I will try my best. It had been reported that this afternoon the Cabinet will make a decision on the revised text of the OECD agreement. We have been clear that it is in the best interests of the State to be part of any final agreement to reform the international tax system. I want to ask a specific question regarding comments the Tánaiste made a number of weeks ago. He said that the 12.5% rate would remain for the average Irish business. He later rowed back on this commitment and clarified that this was a false assurance he had given SMEs, with no approval yet given by the Commission that we would be permitted to operate two rates of corporation tax. As the Tánaiste knows, this is an issue my colleague, Deputy Pearse Doherty, raised with the Department of Finance a number of months ago. Will the Tánaiste clarify whether he has sought approval from the Commission to operate dual tax rates, with 12.5% for businesses that fall below the revenue threshold under the OECD agreement, and whether this approval has been given?
I thank the Deputy. I am pretty sure that is not what I said but it may be a representation or an interpretation of something I did say. I spoke to the Minister for Finance this morning. He will be in a position to present to Cabinet this afternoon. One of the things we have sought is the ability to continue to charge the 12.5% rate to small and medium-sized companies with a turnover of less than €750 million. The Minister informed me today that we have received assurance that we can do this.
It was great to see the Tánaiste visit my home town of Drogheda last week. I notice he visited the Mill Enterprise Centre. This facility is very close to my heart as I have been involved with it for a long number of years in a range of different respects. The Tánaiste will know IDA Ireland recently purchased significant lands in Drogheda. Would it be the preference of the Tánaiste that IDA Ireland, an agency for which the Tánaiste is responsible, would locate data centres on the site? We have one already and speculation is mounting that applications will soon arrive for two additional centres. Would the Tánaiste prefer data centres or other forms of productive and more jobs-rich enterprises to be located on the new IDA Ireland site?
My preference is that the site would be used for jobs-rich investment. That would be an advanced building solution or if somebody wants to establish a factory or a business centre there. That would be the preference given that the previous IDA Ireland site, with which the Deputy is familiar, already accommodates data centres. That would be my preference but I will very much be guided by IDA Ireland in this regard. My understanding is that its intention is that it will be used for an advanced building solution and that will be a jobs-rich investment.
Almost 40,000 people have signed an Uplift.ie petition organised by Dr. Rory Hearne that was delivered to the Dáil this week. It calls on the Government to end favourable tax treatment for investment funds and to restrict the sale of new homes to individuals and not-for-profit organisations. Investment funds have driven up rents and house prices in Ireland to unsustainable and unaffordable levels. Rents have almost doubled in the past decade since the Tánaiste took office. House prices have more than doubled during that time. We now have among the highest rents and house prices in Europe. The rent pressure zones introduced by Fine Gael have failed completely and have been breached in every part of the country in which they were introduced. In the budget will the Government bring in measures to end the favourable tax treatment of investment funds?
That is a budgetary decision and I am not in a position today to comment on what is or is not in the budget. Certainly the Minister for Finance will consider any proposal made in the context of the budget and the Finance Bill that will follow thereafter.
I see the former Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine was comparing the Tánaiste's policies to my policies at the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting yesterday. I hope the Tánaiste will take him outside and have a quiet word and get that knocked on the head. The Tánaiste will get me into terrible trouble with my comrades.
Under this Government, thousands of students are literally surviving on rations of dry toast, dry cereal, a cup of coffee and skip dinner. How could it be otherwise when we have the highest student fees in all of the European Union and we have students forking out €700 or more per month just for a box room. The scenes at UCC yesterday when 131 students queued at a student union food bank should cause the Tánaiste and his Cabinet colleagues to blush if they had any shame. What will the Tánaiste do about the crazy rents being imposed on students and the crazy fees on their backs also?
I acknowledge the fact that many students are struggling financially, whether due to the cost of rent, utilities, food, fees or other items for which they have to pay. The main way we assist students is through the student grant system. More than 75,000 students receive a grant. The grant levels are under review in the budget. In recognition that some students are facing real and serious hardship, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, has doubled the student assistance fund to €17.2 million. In recent days, he has allocated €596,000 of this to UCC to assist it to assist students who are in real financial need.
The defective concrete block grant scheme is not a national scheme. Why not? Why is it limited to counties Donegal and Mayo? Other counties, including County Louth, have dwellings that have been damaged due to the use of defective concrete blocks. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage tells me there is ongoing engagement with a number of local authorities and local action groups on requests for extension of the scheme to other counties. Fair play to Donegal and Mayo but we cannot split the country in half. We need to treat the citizens of Ireland the same. Families have to leave their homes and keep paying their mortgages. If a house is deemed unfit a family cannot live in it. This is also causing serious mental health problems which I have witnessed. We all deserve to be treated the same. Please do not split the country. Please let everyone be able to join the scheme.
The Minister, Deputy O'Brien, is working on proposals for the Government on an enhanced scheme to assist people whose homes have been blighted by mica. As part of this he is considering whether a national scheme might be preferable to a county-based scheme for exactly the reasons the Deputy has enunciated. In these circumstances it would be a national scheme operated by the Housing Agency rather than schemes operated by local authorities. If a house is affected by mica or pyrite it is affected by mica or pyrite and what county it is in should not make a difference.
I join in the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's most fitting tribute to the late Tom Burke. Fear uasal ab ea é. I received an email from a family in Tipperary who have been in business for 60 years. The Tánaiste has often frequented the place. It cannot get staff. We saw what Boris Johnson did across the pond in getting 10,000 work permits issued and bringing in the army. This business started the process last February. It advertised in May and got people from India. It was assured by the Tánaiste a month ago that it would have two within a week.
Three weeks later he received a letter to state there are difficulties. When is the Government going to get the Civil Service back working at full tilt to get these processes done? Home-grown indigenous businesses are sinking and being wiped out by the lack of employees. He requires 50 staff to reopen the business fully but this is very frustrating. I will forward the email of my constituent to the Tánaiste, which is very frustrating to read and disappointing from his point of view. This is a man who wants to employ people and to continue his business for another 60 years.
I thank the Deputy. As the House will be aware, businesses are reporting labour shortages across the economy at the moment in retail, hospitality, logistics, agriculture and food. This is a real problem. A number of different things are driving that, ranging from the impact of the pandemic to how it is much harder for people to travel into the country, or at least it was until a few weeks ago.
With the phasing out of the pandemic unemployment payment and travel restrictions being removed, we will see that labour shortage easing. The issuing of work permits is handled by my Department. We are now at the point where staff are coming back into the offices, we would expect it to be sped up. We also hope to have legislation before the House in the coming months that will modernise the process and make it easier for permits to be given.
Some of the spin in advance of the upcoming budget is that it will enhance people’s ability to work from home. Spin in advance of budgets has become customary and is not a new thing. One of the big obstacles to working from home is poor Internet connectivity. I have raised this with the Tánaiste before. Not alone are there issues with broadband connectivity but people who nominally have a broadband connection get a poor service from their telecoms providers and there is very little that can be done about it.
When I raised this with the Tánaiste previously, he stated there would be a Bill to give additional powers to the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, to tackle those providers. He told me last year that the Bill would be introduced in February. I brought the issue up again and he told me that it would be introduced before the Dáil rose for the summer. I have not seen this Bill yet. Where is it and when will it be put before the Dáil?
I thank the Deputy and that Bill is on the priority list for publication this session. There were some delays; it involves the transposing of an EU directive and involves the making of some changes both to ComReg and the remit of the Competition Act but it is on the priority list for publication this session and I expect it will be published then.
Today, as I have done in the past, I raise again the urgent necessity for confirmation from EirGrid as to the adequacy for a non-fossil fuel-dependent generation of electricity to meet the domestic and industrial requirements over the next two years, in particular, and for it to outline its plans to enhance that generation of non-fossil fuel electricity in that period.
I know, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Can we get from EirGrid an assurance of its ability to meet the domestic and industrial electricity load over the next two years and have it outline also its plans to enhance the generation of non-fossil fuel-dependent electricity in the same period?
I thank the Deputy. We have had some briefings from EirGrid and from the Commission for Regulation of Utilities in Ireland, CRU, in recent weeks and they have developed a plan to ensure that we will have enough electricity not just this winter but for the next four or five winters and that we can cater for increased demand for electricity from industry and households over that period. It involves more renewables but also leaving some power stations operating that it had intended to close. These will need to continue to operate for another couple of years. It also involves new auctions for energy and some new capacity by way of new turbines.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. On that very issue, on the auctions that EirGrid talks about into the future, I was checking back on when this issue emerged and on the severity associated with it. Previous auctions, for example, were won by the ESB. On four separate occasions, when the four-year period had almost expired for the provision of these projects into the national grid, the ESB withdrew from them and paid penalties. The grid was at the loss of 430 MW in addition to the 270 MW that was lost as a result of the closures at Shannonbridge and Lanesborough.
Did EirGrid in its briefing give an indication of how it might ensure in the future that the likes of that never happens again? Representatives like ourselves, and indeed me in my own constituency and region, were prepared to accept the acceleration of decarbonisation, which meant the closure of those power stations on the understanding that new grid projects would be provided. They certainly were not, however. I ask who was at the helm in EirGrid? Where was ComReg and the energy regulator and how do they propose to respond?
I thank the Deputy and must confess to not being a technical expert in this area. EirGrid has acknowledged that the past number of auctions were not successful. There will be new auctions in the new year and we have asked it and impress upon it the need to reconsider their approach to these auctions because if these are operated in the same way, they may end up with the same result. That is something that EirGrid is going to consider and take on board.
The Limerick Leaderthis morning quoted the family of an elderly patient in University Hospital Limerick who said she is in conditions that resemble a cattle mart. Every day in October an average of 80 people are lingering on trolleys in this hospital. I have raised this in the Dáil since I was first elected in 2016. We are facing into the winter crisis where it is going to get worse. Tomorrow, my colleague, Deputy Cullinane, and I are meeting the CEO of the hospital and the unions there. Can the Tánaiste tell me what specifically the Government intends to do to ensure that this winter is not a nightmare winter for the patients, for those who must attend University Hospital Limerick and for the staff there, who do a tremendous job in very difficult situations? It is unfair in this day and age to allow 80 people to be on trolleys, on average, each day. Some 1,000 people waited on trolleys in September and 80 every day so far in October. As it obviously will get worse as we reach the winter peak, I want to know what the Government intends to do. I as that the Tánaiste please does not come back to me with statistics and figures that do not mean anything to people who are on trolleys.
I thank the Deputy and I believe I answered this question already in part to Deputy Cullinane earlier today. We are increasing our bed capacity so that with more beds there will be fewer people on trolleys. We have added more than 800 beds, which are the equivalent of two medium-sized hospitals, since the beginning of the pandemic. That is why we have seen a reduction of the number of people on trolleys relative to where we would have been two to three years ago but that is still far too many, as I acknowledge and as the Deputy has also said.
We are hiring more staff and between 7,000 and 8,000 more staff were hired this year. The HSE has authority to hire the same again. We are investing in home care in order that people can get out of hospital more quickly or can avoid having to go there in the first place. There is also increased investment in primary care, such as GP diagnostics, in order that people are treated in the community, do not deteriorate and do not end up in hospital as frequently as they used to.
Earlier this year, I accused the Government of making announcements on additional funding for mental health supports as window dressing just to create cheap headlines and it gives me no pleasure to find out that I was right. They were not even cheap headlines; they were free headlines as the €10 million announced in additional funding for mental health supports in February remains unspent. This is not good enough as there is a complete lack of urgency on the part of the Government to provide the mental health services people need right now.
People with mental health needs who are in need of such supports have a simple ask. They want to access the services they need, when and where they need them. Why was this money not spent, when will it be spent and will the Tánaiste give a commitment that it will not be re-dressed and re-washed and presented as new money in the budget?
I thank the Deputy very much. The budget for mental health in Ireland is well over €1 billion a year now and has gone up by over 25% in the past couple of years. I was not aware that some of it had gone unspent but as we are not yet at the end of the year, there is still a way to go before December 31.
I join briefly with expressions of sympathy to the late Tom Burke, a constituent of mine in Dublin Rathdown who up until very recently, I would regularly meet for a walk in Marlay Park to talk about everything that is going on here.
On the issue of parks, the programme for Government makes a commitment to prioritise the upkeep and expansion of our public parks. I ask the Tánaiste to work with his Government colleagues to insist that Irish Water makes the new 15-acre landscaped area at the Stillorgan reservoir available for use as a public park, something that is desperately needed for the 5,000 immediate residents in the Sandyford business district.
That is a very good idea. I know the location. Many other reservoirs throughout the country are used as amenities as well as being water sources. I will make a point of taking the matter up with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. I will let him know it was raised in the Dáil.
On carbon budgets, we have introduced legislation in regard to peat harvesting that has virtually crippled our horticulture industry. Bureaucracy in respect of forestry licences is seriously affecting the level of afforestation. The livestock sector feels under siege, and there are carbon budgets, eco schemes, nitrates reviews and Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, reform. We are going to set carbon budgets in the coming weeks. It is essential that these are economically and environmentally sustainable. The beef and dairy sectors are the driving economic force of rural Ireland. Whatever we introduce has to be economically sustainable to allow these industries to survive and prosper.
I fully agree with the Deputy's key point about the setting of targets for the agriculture and food sector. We have to ensure our capacity to produce food will continue into the future. We are a world leader in sustainable production, with our grass-fed, pasture-based model. It is important we continue that.
It is also important to reduce the overall carbon footprint of the food we produce. That is the way forward, not only to make a real contribution to tackling climate change but also to ensure that our sector is as strong as possible into the future and that the value of the food we produce is maximised on the international markets, where 90% of that food is sold. The Deputy has been to the fore in respect of ensuring that the balance in this regard is the correct one. I very much concur with him on that. At Government level, there is a strong recognition of that and, in agreeing the sectoral targets, we are determined to ensure they are ambitious and recognise the importance of the economic and social role of producing food.
I raise the issue of the thousands of children in the State who have developmental difficulties. Being the parent of a child who has these difficulties or challenges is a cause of lingering and continuing stress and worry. Early intervention can make the difference, as I know, between a full life and one that is significantly diminished. Assessments are taking place but therapies are not available. Training unqualified parents is not satisfactory. Some parents who have contacted me can afford to pay the average €150 per week on speech and language therapy, cognitive tests, occupational therapy, autism spectrum disorder assessments, psychologists and paediatricians and avoid three-year waiting lists. A three-year wait is too long for a family and for their suffering child. Will the Tánaiste intervene?
I share the Deputy's concerns about the very long waiting lists for some of those assessments and therapies. I will ask the Ministers for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and Health to provide a detailed answer on the action being taken to improve the situation.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for including me. I was going to ask a further question about the UCC students - I ask that the Tánaiste follow up on the matter - but Deputy Cowen's point made a strong impression on me because I was not aware of the issue. His point is that the ESB, a commercial semi-State company, won a bid to be one of the electricity suppliers but failed to supply the electricity. Was the ESB ever in a position to supply it? It seems it gamed the system, kept another supplier out and was prepared to pay the penalty of €4 million to enable itself to do that. Obviously, consumers, businesses and industry are at the wrong end of this. This is a serious issue. When will the Government revert to the Dáil on it?
I have to confess I am not sure or certain if that is what happened. There may be different accounts as to what happened with the auctions. It is certainly the case that the auctions were unsuccessful. We cannot afford that to happen again in the new year. We need to ensure that those auctions are successful. That may require a change of approach from EirGrid.
Many students from my constituency study at Institute of Technology Sligo. They were contacted and encouraged to book accommodation prior to the start of the first semester this year. At the time, the students did not have their timetables and, due to this encouragement and the scaling-back of restrictions, assumed most of their classes would be held on campus. When their timetables were released, they learned that the vast majority of their classes would still be online and not on campus. They are quite angry and annoyed, as are their parents, at the additional costs they have incurred on accommodation they do not need.
At what stage did Institute of Technology Sligo learn that the majority of its classes would be delivered online and not on campus? Why was this not indicated to students earlier? Was this the only third level institute at which this happened? I am aware the opposite is happening, whereby students have returned to campus and cannot find accommodation. In this instance, the students are not on campus but they were told to find accommodation.
I am afraid I cannot answer questions on behalf of Institute of Technology Sligo. The institute would have to answer those questions for itself. I am sorry to hear students are still learning mainly online there because the norm throughout the country now is that most activities are happening on campus again. It is very disappointing if it is the case that students of Institute of Technology Sligo are not able to have most of their education on campus, given that most third level institutions are doing exactly that.
The programme for Government rightly lauds the important work local drugs task forces do, but nowhere does it mention giving a pay rise to section 39 workers, who have not seen an increase in more than ten years, or address the cuts over that period. Does the Government intend to rectify this and stop the flood of fully qualified addiction counsellors and other personnel moving to the private sector? The issue is outstanding and this needs to be dealt with. They carry out really important work in our communities. We need to back that up by paying the right amount for the jobs they do.
That is a matter for the Minister for Health to determine from his budget. It is something that can arise in the next couple of weeks, once the Estimates are approved by the House. As the Deputy will know, section 39 staff are not public servants, so they are not tied to public sector pay scales, but it is possible for the Government to give section 39 organisations additional funding, which they can then use to fund pay increases or align pay scales with those in the State sector. As I said, that is something the Minister for Health will have to answer.
Yesterday saw a very powerful and poignant rally outside the gates of Leinster House. The march for maternity reminded us there is still an important part of society to which somehow, inexplicably, the Government has not responded and it highlighted the change in circumstances in which we find ourselves 19 months down the line of this pandemic. Has the Tánaiste read the experiences of the women detailed on the scroll that was delivered to the Dáil yesterday? If not, will he ensure he does so? Does he understand there are far wider-reaching risks than solely those posed by Covid-19 to the health of mothers and babies? His Government claims that radical listening forms part of the latest HSE women-centred strategy, but yesterday the women's demonstration contended that rather than experiencing radical listening, they have been experiencing selective hearing. The pandemic has presented unfathomable challenges-----
Decisions on access of partners at maternity hospitals are made, implemented and reviewed at hospital level. The decisions are informed by national guidance with due regard to local circumstances, including infrastructure, local rates of community infection and infection rates among members of staff. The HSE has advised that staff are endeavouring to maximise the attendance of partners within maternity services while ensuring they are in compliance with the HSE's clinical guidelines. It should be emphasised the latest guidelines highlight the importance of taking a person-centred approach to recognising situations in which the presence of a nominated support person is required.
Many of the issues we deal with here are immediate and short term. I raise the issue of rising sea levels. This year, the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was published. The Taoiseach described it as a code red.
The report suggests that parts of Cork, Limerick, Galway, Wexford, Dublin, Clare and Kerry will be under water before too long. The rise in sea levels cannot be stopped and is accelerating. What long-term plans does the Government have to study and deal with this? Will it set up a national sea level measurement advisory group, as has been suggested? Other countries are taking this very seriously. What are we doing?
Local authorities are responsible for the management of problems associated with coastal change and erosion in their respective areas, but there is a need for a long-term, co-ordinated approach to tackle the issues of coastal change and to provide a framework for key decisions to be taken on how Ireland can best manage its coast, being aware of the future risks and associated planning requirements. The Government has established an interdepartmental group on managing coastal change to scope out an approach for the development of a national co-ordinated and integrated strategy to manage the protected impact of coastal change on our communities, economies, heritage, culture and environment. The interdepartmental group is currently chaired by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Office of Public Works will bring forward options and recommendations for the Government to consider in due course.
I, too, wish to sympathise with the family of late Tom Burke. He was a massive friend of my late father and, indeed, all of us since we were elected to the Dáil.
I wish to raise the issue of work permits for people from non-EU countries to help with the housebuilding programme and in many other areas. In Killarney, Michael Cronin Readymix and Thermohouse is looking for 20 people right away. Michael Cronin tells me he could employ up to 100 more if he could get the people. In the hospitality sector, there are places such as Scotts Hotel and Gleneagle Hotel and there is also the Roughty Valley Co-operative Society, a piggery, waiting for 50 of these. I believe the permits are on the desk of the Minister of State, Deputy English. I know he is a very good man, but there is a shortage of staff in that office. I ask the Tánaiste to advance as quickly as possible whatever Bill he is due to bring to the Chamber in the next few months. It is of paramount importance to employers because they cannot get staff.
We are keen to get that legislation done as soon as possible. It was delayed in pre-legislative scrutiny in the committee. I spoke to the chairman about that and I understand it may be advancing now. If we can get the Bill to the House in this session, we will. There had been delays in processing permits, but that is improving now. However, there is also a cap on the number of permits and we have to review that as well. We may increase those caps, but we must have regard to wider considerations such as, for example, issues with accommodation and ensuring that terms, conditions and wages are protected.