Tuesday, 19 October 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
They are not agreed. Ireland is the most vaccinated country in Europe. It has a 92% vaccination rate. It has also had the longest and most severe restrictions in the whole of Europe at a cost that is higher than most of the rest of Europe. Despite this, we have the seventh highest level of Covid-19 in the whole of the European Union at the moment. By any measure, this is a disaster and a failure of government. Rapid antigen testing outside of close contacts is still only an aspiration in the plans we have seen today. There is a request that the expert advisory group on rapid testing provide a view on future feasibility and an understanding of what is happening.
The Labour Party has tabled a priority question on the decriminalisation of drug users for answer on Thursday. The Department of Justice has told us it is a matter for the Department of Health and, as a result, this priority question will not be answered by the Minister for Justice. The reason our courts are full of people with drug addictions is that this is a justice issue. It is dealt with by the Department of Justice and falls under the legislation that the Minister for Justice oversees. If we are to have this conversation about the decriminalisation of drug users, I have to ask the Minister for Justice about it. My priority question on Thursday has been disallowed and I have been told it will be put in front of the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, in two weeks’ time. I ask the Ceann Comhairle's office to intervene-----
If I understand it correctly, Deputy Tóibín wants a debate on Covid-19 and what he describes as "a disaster and a failure of government". That language is completely wrong and inappropriate. We were designated number one in the world for resilience in respect of Covid in the Bloomberg report. It is for it to determine that we are number one.
That report was on our entire handling of Covid-19 and places to live during Covid in terms of the resilience of society. It had a whole range of factors, from the economy to vaccination. I know enough about a global pandemic to know that it can come back to bite at any time. We have noticed that different countries have different phases of the pandemic, which manifests itself differently. It has not been a disaster in Ireland because in terms of mortality and incidence, we are way below other comparable countries in Europe and around the world. That is no reason to be complacent. What today's decision is about is essentially taking note of the fact that the trajectory of the virus has taken a turn for the worse and the need, as we reopen, to retain some key protections, namely, the vaccination cert - which I know the Deputy-----
-----was virulently against - and in terms of masks and other issues where appropriate and practical.
By the way, I do not have an issue with a debate. All Members agreed to the Order of Business and the schedule for the week.
I know. The trajectory went kind of wrong over the last two weeks. As I said earlier, the timelines are not of the Government’s creation. Covid-19 does not respect our parliamentary schedule. That is the point and because it does not respect our parliamentary schedule, the Government is open to facilitating a debate, although not today. Thursday could be an opportunity if the Business Committee could meet and if that is the desire of the House, but that is a matter for the Business Committee.
On Deputy Ó Ríordáin's point, I have sympathy with the Deputy's position. He has a strong commitment to this issue. He is an advocate for the decriminalisation of drugs and dealing with drugs from a policy perspective more as a health issue than a criminal issue. I will talk to both Ministers and Departments. I do not tend to know what happens in these situations but it is unfortunate that the Deputy has been denied that opportunity this week. As far as we are concerned, these issues should be thrashed out in the open in Parliament. There is no issue with that. I regret that this happened and I will revert to the Deputy.
The Alliance for Insurance Reform has found that business insurance costs have increased by an average of 15% since the personal injuries guidelines were adopted in April. This is despite the fact that the guidelines resulted in significant reductions in claim costs. Motor insurance costs have dropped only fractionally but, across the board, insurance costs have not reflected the fact that the awards made by the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, PIAB, have fallen by 40% since the new guidelines were introduced. It appears that the guidelines have ensured that the profits for insurance companies have increased rather than the stated objective of the cost of insurance premiums being reduced. In April, my colleague, Deputy Pearse Doherty, introduced legislation that would require insurance companies to report to the Central Bank if and how these savings were being passed on to their customers. It would have applied real pressure to the industry to pass on these savings to their customers. The Government put a stay of nine months on that legislation.
The survey by the Alliance for Insurance Reform was published this morning. I understand it shows that the average business insurance renewal price was over 15% despite the new personal injury guidelines. The work of the PIAB demonstrates that the cost of the awards has decreased significantly as a result of the guidelines introduced. The Government continues to have good engagements with the Alliance for Insurance Reform. The Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, has been especially proactive on this front and is bringing forward legislation imminently in respect of the issues that the Deputy has raised. The national claims information database provides the best statistical basis for assessing pricing for employer and public liability insurance. It collects substantial verified data on the cost of employer and public liability insurance across all sectors and policies. In its report, published earlier this year, which covered 2009 to 2019, it showed that 93% of business insurance policies were under €5,000.
Booster vaccines for those aged over 60 will now be given with immediate effect. We welcome and support that initiative. Will the over-60s have to wait six months, given that there is a minimum interval of five months between shots? Will that not mean that many will not get their booster shot until early next year? The Taoiseach said that the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, provided advice to him and the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, that it will keep the administration of vaccine boosters to healthcare workers under examination and review. Our front-line healthcare workers were some of the first vaccinated and are those most at risk of being exposed to Covid at work. Modelling shows that we could have up to 1,000 patients with Covid in hospital in November and there could be up to 200 people in ICU. Is now not the right time to roll out the booster shots quickly to our front-line workers? It would protect those who will be most exposed and who will need to be available to work to ensure that our hospitals are not understaffed. Would the Government not agree to give the booster to front-line healthcare workers now?
I am sure that the Deputy will agree that the administration of vaccines has to be a clinical issue. We are not experts in this House. I know what we would like. I have concerns about the healthcare workers. I would like them to get boosters but I have to defer to the expert advice of NIAC. We have done this throughout various vaccination programmes before the pandemic. If you stand back from it all, it gives us confidence in vaccine programmes. The fact that we achieved a 93% vaccination uptake rate in itself illustrates a degree of confidence among the general population in our vaccine decision-making process. If we were to diverge from that, no matter how tempted we might be, and start making up our own rules as we go about who should get a vaccine and when, that could damage overall confidence in the vaccination programme. In the correspondence, NIAC states that it is keeping this issue under examination.
I raise the issue of scoliosis in children again, which the Ombudsman for Children has stated is a children's rights issue. While I think the whole country was relieved and delighted to hear that Adam Terry received his appointment, thousands of children are waiting for their first consultation with their orthopaedic surgeon and 179 children like Adam are waiting for surgery. I recognise there have been issues with Covid and the cyberattack but what will happen for those children? What additional measures has the Government put in place to ensure those children will be seen within the four-month time limit that was promised for them in 2017 and which has been a policy of Government since?
I accept the basic premise that we do not want children waiting for operations, surgery and assessments unduly. We want surgery to happen in a timely matter, particularly for scoliosis and other conditions. There has been an increase in capacity, an extra surgeon in Temple Street and so forth, but we need to do more. Children's Health Ireland is in discussions with the HSE and the Minister on adding further capacity to make sure children can get procedures and surgery in a timely manner and we get the best outcome for the child. That is not happening at the moment. It needs to happen and that is what we are committed to doing.
People are facing a real crisis this winter in terms of energy and fuel costs. Many people are already seeing rises of over €500. The Government in the budget last week made much of the extra €5 for those on fuel allowance, even though it is less than a third of the cost that many will face. It also announced that the means test would be increased by €20. It did not announce that the increased means test will not apply until 7 January next year. I have a man who is €5 over the current means test. If the Taoiseach accepts that he needs the fuel allowance to pay for his fuel, what does he expect him to do in October, November and December? Will the Taoiseach and the Government intervene to ensure the means test is increased immediately and people like the guy I represent and many others are able to access the fuel allowance now?
The Government decision was to implement the decisions with immediate effect on budget night. The two key decisions were the amount of €5, which was to be implemented immediately, and the increase in the threshold. I will review that and talk to the Minister. It could be an administrative issue. I will pursue it.
My question relates to the package of aviation supports announced of €126 million in total in grant assistance. I compare that to the withdrawal of stopgap funding of €375,000 to Waterford Regional Airport per year. There is a stunning absence of detail on this massive state aid to the sector. I have brought this up before. How is the Oireachtas expected to discharge our duty of budgetary oversight when we do not have the scantest information on this expenditure? We are always being told the airport sector does not get free state aid and therefore is beyond the scrutiny of these Houses. It is particularly important, when one looks at the out-of-control expenditure and practices going on in Cork and Dublin airports, as it appears this money falls out of the spirit of the Covid exceptions to EU state aid. Where are the economic analysis, businesses cases, procurement process, lobbying disclosures, oversight and public debate over what looks like a massive bung to Dublin, Cork and Shannon airports?
The whole aviation package is about the country. It not about individual airports but about facilitating travel and getting our capacity back up. The number of people travelling into Ireland is a fraction of what it was before the pandemic. The airports and airlines have sought a meaningful aviation package and Deputies from all sides of the House have asked us to do more for aviation. We have been criticised for not doing enough. This package was announced in the budget to support restoring capacity to airports and airlines and to make sure we can get people in.
As for why, it is to help the hospitality sector in terms of the tourism sector, so there are more tourists using the greenway in Dungarvan, for example, or other tourism sites in Waterford and across the south east. If we do not have the capacity to get people in, they will not be spending money across the length and breadth of the country.
Thousands of people who needed cataracts removed or their hips and knees replaced availed of the cross-border directive. That has been followed this year with the Northern Ireland planned healthcare scheme. As many people still need these interventions and it is clear that our own health service is in serious jeopardy, I ask the Government to continue the Northern Ireland planned healthcare scheme after 31 December, as it is due to end on that date. I strongly appeal to the Taoiseach to please continue the scheme because people will lose their eyesight and will continue to be in pain with their knees and hips and they will also need other interventions.
The Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, responded by providing the scheme following Brexit as, unfortunately, the decision on Brexit invalidated the cross-border directive. That was outside of our control. We are very anxious to ensure that the €350 million available under the waiting list initiative is being spent and every effort will be made to procure treatments for people in various locations. We will review the situation at the end of December, and I will come back to the Deputy in respect of it.
I wish to raise an issue that was recently highlighted to me regarding animal welfare. I was very concerned to learn about plans to exports thousands of pigs from Ireland to China. EURACTIV has reported the backlash to the Government's announcement. Tilly Metz MEP, who chaired the committee of inquiry on the protection of animals during transport, states exporting pigs from Ireland to China is "definitely not the way forward: neither for animal welfare nor for the climate". She also refers to the effect on sustainability of shortening supply chains. The head of Compassion in World Farming EU has come out against it. The Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, ISPCA, has also come out against it and it raises issues about animal welfare legislation in China. I add my call to those of others for the Government to scrap its plans for live exports.
I will raise the concerns of the Deputy with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and will revert back to her with respect to the Department's assessment of the situation.
The programme for Government contains a range of commitments on education, not least the recent reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio. However, to do that, we first need a teacher, and I know many principals across north Dublin are struggling to recruit teachers at the moment. They are also struggling to find substitute teachers. There was an arrangement in place previously where special education teaching, SET, hours were allowed to be banked and those classes could be covered. Could the Taoiseach do everything he can to alleviate the many issues teachers and principals face regarding the shortage across the north city?
The Minister for Education is dealing with this issue in terms of recruitment, retention and substitution. We do not want to disadvantage children with special needs either in terms of losing their provision to substitute teachers and the banking of hours. This is something that must be worked out and worked through. There is a reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio due to the increase of close to 1,000 SET teachers again this year. There will be a significant recruitment of primary school teachers into the system in addition to recruitment in mainstream schools and schools in the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, scheme. It is challenging in the context of Covid but we are working in every creative way we can to improve the substitution side.
The recent budget provided a welcome increase of just over 20% for the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner. We have seen problems with the administration of the general data protection regulation, GDPR, regime here. Data protection authorities in other countries have tried to sidestep us. The Data Protection Commission has been called out for being a roadblock in the enforcement of GDPR. This is a reputational risk to us and, ultimately, an erosion of the fundamental right of European Union citizens to privacy.
Will the Government use the increase to follow the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Justice to appoint two further commissioners and to begin an independent audit and review of the policies and procedures of the Data Protection Commissioner to ensure that we protect citizens' rights?
I support the Deputy's motivation on the protection of citizens' rights and the proper application of GDPR. The Office of the Data Protection Commissioner has emerged as a strong enough institution. The additional resources will help to resource the office. It does need to be consistently resourced over time and to build up its capacity to enable it to deal with the wide range of issues that come our way in terms of European citizens. We will keep the recommendations of the Oireachtas committee under review.
School transport for secondary students is operating at a loading limit of 50%. Thousands of children were excluded from the scheme due to the infamous concessionary ticket classification. We were promised that this would be kept under review. Parents and Bus Éireann were looking towards 22 October for the possible reintroduction of 100% refunds, which would ordinarily have been issued, but they have been held back. Will the school transport system return to 100% after the mid-term break or, if not, are there plans to increase capacity?
The decisions today facilitate a change in direction. The Minister for Education will want to consult with the education partners on the operationalisation of that, and what is in the best interests of the young people involved. Given the high vaccination rates for the over-12s, the Minister will take all of that into consideration and she will inform the education partners shortly in that regard.
The dental treatment scheme is on the verge of collapse right across the State. Some 200 dentists have left the scheme this year alone and more than one third have left the scheme since 2016. Despite knowing that the scheme is on the verge of collapse, neither the Minister nor the Taoiseach has done anything to deal with it.
I will give the Taoiseach an example of what is happening right across the State. In Drogheda, we could find only one dentist who is still accepting patients with medical cards. That is in an area with a population of more than 40,000. I will outline to the Taoiseach how the situation is affecting ordinary people on the ground. A constituent who had mouth cancer and an operation last year, who is insulin-dependent, cannot get an appointment, although he urgently needs one. Another kidney transplant patient, who is losing her teeth, cannot get an appointment.
Additional funding of €10 million has been provided in the budget on top of the existing level of service provision of €56 million. The additional allocation should enable progress to be made in addressing issues concerning service provision for medical card patients in 2022.
The national oral health policy, Smile agus Sláinte, was published in 2019. The future approach to oral health service provision has been aligned with the goals and objectives of this policy and is in line with WHO resolutions and models of care. The Deputy is aware that the HSE public dental service provides emergency and routine care to children under the age of 16. It has always been the Department's intention to undertake a root and branch review of the contract. Covid interrupted the plans outlined in the new national oral health policy in 2019.
In the previous Dáil, a Wildlife (Amendment) Bill was published and the effect of it was to reconfigure the bog natural heritage areas, NHAs. This Bill first came before the Dáil in 2016 and it was passed by the Dáil in December 2018.
It then went into the Seanad on the same day and was passed by the Seanad on 6 November 2019. The final stage was to come back to the Dáil to debate the Seanad amendments but when the election was called, the Bill lapsed. Most Bills are recommitted in the new Dáil but this Bill has not been recommitted. I note it is now in the list of “Other Legislation”.
First, when will it be published? Second, will the heads be published and will it go to pre-legislative scrutiny before we get a final Bill?
I just want to give an informed response to the Deputy. I will pursue that and get the up-to-date position for him in regard to publication and whether it has fallen foul of the syndrome he has identified, very helpfully, today in the House.
Over years now, I have repeatedly asked about the social housing income thresholds being raised. I have been told by the last Government and this Government that they are being reviewed. This review has been going on for years and we are never given a date for when it is going to be completed. I have to draw the conclusion there is a systematic policy to cull people from the housing list because this is a threshold that has not been raised for a decade, guaranteeing thousands of people have lost their many years of waiting on the social housing lists. The latest incident I brought up last week with the Tánaiste was the case of a family who were on family income supplement in homeless accommodation, with a disabled wife and eight children, and they were thrown off the list. They are now being evicted even from homeless accommodation because the Government will not complete the review and reform the thresholds.
I met with Roscommon Fianna Fáil councillors yesterday and they were making that very point to me, including Councillor John Keogh and others. I have sympathy with the issue. I think the review should be brought to completion and the thresholds should be increased somewhat.
On 21 September, the Tánaiste, Deputy Leo Varadkar, said that pay increases are happening across the economy. I would heavily and heartily dispute that but I can tell the Taoiseach it is most definitely not happening in the security industry. I want to ask for an update on the status of the State’s defence of the court challenge taken against the employment regulation order, ERO, for workers in the security sector. This challenge seeks to put back their pay increases which, as the Taoiseach will know, are very modest but very much needed as the Government lets the cost of living run riot. Can the Taoiseach give us an update as to when this case is going to take place? I appreciate the courts have their work to do. When is the case going to take place and can the Taoiseach commit that the State will vigorously defend this ERO?
I do not have information in regard to the specific issue with me and I am not in a position, obviously, as the Deputy said, to dictate the timelines of the court. Certainly, I will inquire as to where this is at the moment and I will see if I can get further information.
Sixteen years after Leas Cross, seven years after Áras Attracta, we now find sustained sexual abuse of more than 18 residents was known to the HSE for over 13 years in a particular home. Will the Taoiseach make sure mandatory reporting legislation is introduced as a matter of urgency to protect vulnerable people in homes and care situations? Will he have a public inquiry to support the needs of broken-hearted families who lost loved ones in nursing homes like Ballynoe in County Cork and Dealgan House in County Louth, given there were shocking and unacceptable death levels in those homes and a lack of care?
I understand there is legislation in train in respect of the mandatory reporting issue under the patient safety Bill. I will come back to the Deputy in terms of the timelines around that. It is beyond comprehension what has occurred here, from what I have read. My understanding is the Garda is still pursuing the matter, and that takes precedence over decisions that Ministers or the Government may take. There is an urgent need also to facilitate access for the families to the essentials contained in the report as they have been kept in the dark for far too long. This is a shocking situation and we will certainly continue to pursue it.
The programme for government commits to exploring the potential for development of an industrial fibre sector using hemp. Two years ago in this building, one of the recommendations of Ireland's youth assembly was the development of the Irish hemp industry. Hemp has huge potential not only in regard to our climate but also for farmers. There is an unusual lacuna in the Misuse of Drugs Act in regard to growing hemp. Will the Government amend the law around this lacuna?
There is a contradiction in the law. The Health Products Regulatory Authority and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland say there is a limit of 0.2% of tetrahydrocannabinol, THC, whereas the Misuse of Drugs Act says it is 0%, so there is a contradiction.
I want to raise the national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence 2016-21, which has rightly focused on awareness and education in recent years. Given recent events that I myself experienced along with thousands of men, women and children up and down the State, both reported and unreported, will the Government and the Taoiseach outline the proposals for the new national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence which is scheduled for publication soon?
It is very difficult to answer both in 30 seconds. It is a fairly complex lacuna that Deputy Kenny was outlining. I will certainly pursue the issue between the two Departments and talk to both Ministers in respect of the legislative requirement. There is an issue that needs to be developed and explored to see if we can do this in a proper, regulated way.
With regard to Deputy Farrell’s point, this is a key issue for the Government and for the Ministers involved, in particular the Minister for Justice, in respect not just of the implementation of the strategy but a whole range of parallel measures that we have to introduce to deal with gender-based violence and domestic violence. There is a comprehensive agenda ahead of Government and that was reflected in the increased resources in the recent budget.