Wednesday, 20 October 2021
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
There is more bad news today for renters as the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, calculator reflects that rent inflation now stands at 4.3%. This is at a time when rents are extortionate and at a time when many younger people will now weigh up their options and decide whether to stay or to go once the Covid restrictions lift. It is a disgrace the Government did not show up for renters. There was nothing in the budget for them. We told the Government when it linked rents to inflation that it was too little too late. We asked the Government, and I ask again, for a ban on rent increases for the three years and to put a month's rent back in renters' pockets by way of a tax credit. That is what is needed so people can have some chance to live a decent life here.
The Deputy's view on a tax credit could simply fuel inflation even further. That is just the reality. Supply is the key issue for getting rents down. Constitutionally, we cannot ban rent increases for three years.
That is the advice we have received. I note that in Northern Ireland the increases are in double digits. The Deputy's party is in charge of housing in Northern Ireland and it has not waved any magic wand to get rents down or get the housing issue resolved.
Supply is the key issue. Very significant supports are being made available in the form of rental supports for low-income renters through the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, and the housing assistance payment, HAP.
We are very conscious it is very challenging and difficult for people out there. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, will be introducing a new Bill in early November to address the inflation concerns around rent and also security of tenure for tenants and tenancies of indefinite duration.
In the middle of a pandemic we are facing into a crisis with the volume of nurses we are going to have. A report on student nurses has been lying on the desk of the Minister for Health. It was carried out by Sean McHugh. It has been there since August. When will it be published? The review looked at existing allowances to student nurses, the pandemic placement grant and pay for fourth-year nurses and midwives. Nurses who are qualifying and intending to emigrate have been in touch with me and my colleagues. They are going all over the world. There is a huge need for urgency on this issue. We have raised it on numerous occasions. We even put down a motion in the Seanad. Where is this report? Why is it being hidden? Why has it not been published and shared with the rest of us? When is the Government going to address this issue, given where we are at in the pandemic?
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. As he knows, the Minister moved early on an earlier report in respect of student nurses' supports and will bring this report to Government. Government will then act on that report.
I have a minute but in that time I will list some of the very serious issues facing our primary schools. There is a substitute teacher crisis taking place, one the Department of Education has denied and worsened by lack of action. More than 650 primary schools are not covered in the primary schools substitute teacher supply panels.
There are school principals on Twitter looking for substitute teachers at the moment. Primary schools only received a fraction of the CO2 monitors required, relative to the number of classrooms and, scandalously, ASD classrooms were excluded from the calculations. There has been no advice to schools on antigen testing. Air filtration devices are not available unless schools are willing to pay for them. Clean air inequality now exists in our classrooms. On top of all of that, pupils are in the most overcrowded classrooms in the EU. Will the Government revert to the testing and tracing system that was in place in September because what is happening now is not working? Will the Department supply air filtration devices to primary schools as a form of effective mitigation?
I spoke to the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, during the week about the reopening of schools and he is of the belief that it has worked well. There is a very close relationship between public health and education providers and there has been since the beginning. A specific advisory team has been advising the education sector in respect of the reopening of schools and the return of children to school. By and large, over time, its advice has been effective and well placed. Sometimes I have seen unions disagree with that advice and call for this, that and the other but public health advice must be the anchor for everything we do in the context of a global pandemic. Politicians cannot make it up as they go along either. There is a tendency to listen to the first group that comes to us, trot out what they have said and suggest that is the solution. There must be some degree of consistency in approach and public health has to be at the centre of it. It can be frustrating at times and I accept Deputy Gannon's point-----
The Government kicked to touch in budget week on the issue of a Covid bonus for front-line workers but it cannot keep kicking to touch every week. Did the Taoiseach note The Irish Times/MRBI poll last week which showed 79% support for paying the bonus to public sector front-line workers and majority support for making a payment to private sector front-line workers too? What steps does the Government intend to take to make private sector employers reward their staff? How long is the Government going to make our long-suffering healthcare workers on the front line wait for an answer on this issue?
The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Government have engaged in consultations with the social partners - employers and trade unions - in respect of finding the optimal way to provide for front-line healthcare workers in particular and front-line workers in general in the context of Covid-19 and the response to same. Engagement is ongoing on that matter.
In 2018, the people of Wexford raised over €250,000, in consultation with and at the request of the HSE, to provide an MRI scanner for Wexford General Hospital. At the moment we have a service-level agreement with a private provider but unfortunately, we have not yet received our MRI scanner. A charity is now paying interest on the €250,000 that was raised while it sits in the bank and we are paying for a service level agreement that does not give bang for our buck vis-à-vispatients in Wexford because those patients who need scans on certain parts of their body actually have to pay extra. When, in the context of capital spending by the HSE, will we receive the MRI scanner, bearing in mind that the HSE has an underspend?
Two streams of funding are needed for an MRI scanner. Capital funding is needed but, more critically, current funding is needed to provide staff and ongoing supports to make sure the MRI programme is effective. It is not just a question of the provision of a machine. Clearly, expertise in terms of the programme itself is key. We have engaged with the HSE on this and I know that Deputies from Wexford have also done so. I will seek a further response from the HSE.
I am seriously concerned about the ambulance service in west Cork. West Cork has four ambulances assigned to the area. One is in Castletownbere but is in Kerry all of the time, one is in Clonakilty and is dubbed the Cork city ambulance and two more are in the Bantry area but spend almost every day in every part of County Cork except west Cork, pushing great ambulance staff to the limit. In the past number of weeks, a man in Castletownbere was hit by a car and was left for two hours and 45 minutes on the roadside as no ambulance was available in west Cork. Three young men were involved in a car accident outside Schull and were waiting two and a half hours for an ambulance while a person in Skibbereen died while waiting for an ambulance for a lengthy period. A woman who suffered a suspected stroke on an island near Schull waited for two hours for an ambulance. Last Friday, a child in a school north of Bantry fell seriously ill. When the ambulance service was contacted, it advised the parents to take the child to Cork University Hospital in the back of the car. The parents drove frantically but when they got as far as Coppeen, they thought the child was dead. Eventually an ambulance caught up with them in Coppeen. I ask the Taoiseach to personally intervene on behalf of the people of west Cork and demand that the ambulances based in west Cork are deployed in that area.
We have a National Ambulance Service which works on a national basis and to national protocols. The service has been modernised dramatically over the past 20 years.
When I was Minister for Health I established the Pre-Hospital Emergency Care Council, PHECC, which brought in the professionalisation of first responders and emergency medical technicians. That transformed the whole area. I will engage with the National Ambulance Service in respect of the issues that Deputy Collins just raised but we cannot say we need a service for west Cork or east Kerry or wherever else. We have a national framework that governs first responder provision, ambulance provision and so on and that has been the case for quite some time. However, the Deputy has referred to a number of cases and I will ask for a detailed report in respect of the issues raised.
I have raised the issue of the U-turn by the previous Government on building a new Garda station in Sligo with the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste many times. I have even had questions to the Minister for Justice disallowed. I did receive some information as to what happened but no matter how many times I ask whether a cost-benefit analysis was done on the decision to refurbish an almost 200-year-old Garda station instead of going head with the promised new build which had allocated funding and a new site purchased by the Office of Public Works, I cannot get an answer. I am only looking for a simple "Yes" or "No". The previous Government did not take political responsibility but this Government must take responsibility when it comes to spending public money. I ask the Taoiseach to answer that question. I understand that the answer may not be on the tip of his tongue and am happy to wait. Has a cost-benefit analysis been undertaken?
To be fair to Deputy Harkin, she has raised this issue consistently in the House and the authorities involved should respond. It is an operational matter for An Garda Síochána but it should be fully transparent in explaining why it has taken certain decisions.
The programme for Government speaks of extending the oral health promotion programme to reach all children in primary schools. Unfortunately, this aspiration is moving further and further away from us. Many children are not being seen until some time in secondary school and when they are seen they are put on a waiting list, often for two or three years. The situation is deteriorating. I ask the Taoiseach to speak to the Minister for Health and to ensure that the additional resources required to ensure early detection of orofacial problems are prioritised so that parents can make interventions, be they private or public, to prevent their child's condition from deteriorating. I have spoken with people involved in the current national screening programme who have told me that early detection and early intervention is not happening.
I accept that there are issues in respect of dental health but provision was made in the budget for additional resources to expand the oral health programme and to add to the numbers of people involved in the provision of the public programme. I can get some figures for the Deputy in respect of that but I take the point he makes. Additional provision has been made in the budget and I will engage with the Minister for Health on the matter.
We have all heard the toxic discussions and debates with respect to politicians, the hate speech and so on. Councillors are resigning or retiring early, before their time.
The programme for Government states that the Government will "Consider the introduction of an alternate/substitute candidate list to cover parental and caring leave, long-term illness leave, resignation [and so on, and] career breaks". It also states that it will "Develop supports and alternatives for members of the Oireachtas to take parental leave." Curiously, on the same page it also states that the Government will "Examine replacing by-elections with an alternate list system." Who is responsible for bringing these ideas forward so we can debate them? What kind of progress has been made to date?
We are all responsible in terms of collective engagement on the issue. The Minister without portfolio, Deputy McEntee, set a good example with regard to progressing this and the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, also did so more recently in respect of parental leave. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage is responsible for both the national issues around an alternative list system and developing those reforms. The big reform at the moment is the legislation around the Electoral Commission, which has to be comprehensive in its nature and also has to deal with modernising our entire electoral system. An alternative list system for by-elections does merit debate across the House and in an Oireachtas committee because it would have implications for our parliamentary democratic system. We need to modernise on a range of issues the Deputy raised.
Yesterday, the Alliance for Insurance Reform published a report revealing that insurance renewal costs have increased by 15% on average. In Wicklow, a local business, Squirrel's Scramble Tree Adventure Park, was recently forced into making a very difficult decision to close down following a 280% insurance hike. Its insurance went from €26,000 to €88,000. Clearly, further reform is required in the insurance sector, with particular focus on the duty of care to ensure an appropriate balance in responsibilities between parties. The Government must ensure that changes to duty of care legislation are prioritised to help save businesses that are crippled by insurance companies. In March, a progress report from the Government on the insurance reform plan stated that priorities for the following three months would include reform of the duty of care. Seven months later, there is absolutely nothing.
I dealt with these issues in the House yesterday at greater length. The introduction of new personal injury guidelines has been a significant development. As the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, PIAB, has reported, this has reduced award levels by approximately 50%. That figure is from preliminary PIAB data, which should follow through in terms of premiums. The Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, will be bringing forward legislation, not specifically on duty of care but relating to other areas on the insurance front. The Government is on target as regards a range of measures and legislative initiatives around insurance which, combined, will ultimately reduce the amount of money consumers have to pay for insurance premiums. That is the objective of the Government and we are making progress in that regard.
Qualifying for driver licences and the renewal of licences has been a big issue for people locally for a long while. People are experiencing very long delays, especially for the test. The extension of driver licences during the pandemic was very helpful but now those licences have to be renewed. The over-70s are expected to provide a medical certificate as part of their renewal and that is creating extra work for busy GPs. It is drawing vulnerable people into busy surgeries at a time of the year when respiratory conditions are becoming more common. As the Taoiseach can imagine, that is a huge worry for people aged over 70 who are looking to renew their licence and want to stay mobile. Can that burden be lightened for the over-70s? I ask the Government to push out the need for the medical certificate to a later age, reduce the burden on everybody and streamline the process. Can it be reviewed with the National Driver Licence Service, NDLS?
I thank the Deputy for a very pertinent question and for his consistent advocacy for drivers on the driving test issue, particularly during the Covid situation. The Minister of State with responsibility for road transport, Deputy Naughton, has approved the proposal to raise the age for the mandatory provision of a medical report with licence applications to 75. Implementation of the proposal requires a range of legislative and operational changes. Initial draft regulations were forwarded to the Road Safety Authority, RSA, for observation. It is anticipated that these will be sent to the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, OPC, shortly. Other regulations such as those determining fees may also need amendment. In addition, the RSA is revising its operational procedures to accommodate the change. At this stage, the division is currently working towards a 1 December commencement date, although this is dependent on no significant issues arising. As the Deputy knows, as part of the provisions made due to the Covid-19 pandemic and to ease the burden on medical services, the requirement for persons of 70 years of age or older to submit a medical certificate was removed. The Deputy knows the background to this. We are making progress on some of the issues he has raised.
I seek to raise an issue with an Taoiseach that is becoming increasingly frequent and irritating, namely, the application of the general data protection regulation, GDPR, by a number of utility services and public bodies. When a question is raised by Members of the Oireachtas, all of whom are directly elected by the people and have a mandate from the people, they are challenged as to whether they have permission from the subject in respect of whom the question has been raised to raise the question. If one is objecting to the activities of a particular body or public body, does one have to get permission from the subject in order to raise it in the House or get an answer to the question? This is a serious issue. It is fairly widespread and it is being abused as a means of avoiding questions. When my office attempted to report a burst sewerage pipe in a construction site-----
The Deputy has raised a serious issue. The Oireachtas should engage with utilities generally and set a clear agreement or framework through which a proper management and understanding of GDPR can be arrived at. It should never be used as a basis to prevent public representatives from raising legitimate issues like burst water pipes, or representing frail and vulnerable constituents who might not be fully aware of the importance of GDPR. When they are told they need to write a letter they look at you as if you have two heads. I get the point the Deputy is making. We need practical common sense in the application of this regulation.
The improvement of local bus services is included in the programme for Government. I raise the need for a local bus service in the town of Portlaoise. The plan has been put together, the research has been done by the local authority, the route has been designed and the location of bus stops has been decided. The Government needs to hand this role over to the local authorities. This is with the National Transport Authority, NTA, and it is a pain trying to get anywhere with the NTA. We should not be contacting the NTA in Dublin about issues like this. The Government should trust the local authorities, their staff and members. They are grown-ups and the Government should devolve that power to them. Portlaoise is a growing town that is over 7 km across. It has a population of 25,000, far bigger than the city of Kilkenny. The centre of the town is choked up with cars regularly. It is a low-carbon town.
We need a bus service in the town and it is time to put it in place. I ask the Government to raise this with the NTA. The Minister for Transport could take a hands-on approach to this. It is a low-carbon town so this is an opportunity to drive this home.
What is crucial right now is the interaction between the local authority and the NTA. A proper relationship should exist to facilitate the issues the Deputy has raised about the operation of the local public transport service and system. In some situations it works well and in others maybe not so well.
Page 115 of the programme for Government refers to the Commission on the Defence Forces. It provides commitments that this commission will examine the governance of the Defence Forces and how they respond to members' needs. I commend and welcome the fact that the Secretary General and senior officials of the Department of Defence met the group of courageous women who are spearheading the Women of Honour campaign. I understand that an independent review body has been established and also that the Commission on the Defence Forces will have compiled a report by the end of December. I seek assurances from the Taoiseach, however, that if the scale of abuse conveyed by the women cannot be addressed in a review or a report, he will commit to a stand-alone inquiry?
The Minister for Defence and Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, met with the Women of Honour group and established the independent review. He also announced interim support measures for current and former members of the Defence Forces who have been affected by unacceptable behaviour in the workplace. We have also had the appointment of a confidential contact person with whom members can raise concerns. This service will be available to assist both serving and former members of the Defence Forces and provide a safe place to support the report of alleged wrongdoing in the workplace.
To address the Deputy's question, I am not going to pre-empt the inquiry. The Women of Honour group deserves great credit. It has started a process of which an inquiry is the first step. We obviously have to consider the outcome and conclusions of that inquiry before the next step.
I raise the issue of the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, and the sale of homes to investment funds. Building defects do not explain why the homes in question - 26 apartments - were left empty for almost a decade. They do not explain the length of time involved. It should not take so long.
The Government is not meeting its target for the delivery of cost-rental and affordable homes. The target is so far off that the Government did not even publish information on it in the report on Housing for All released today. NAMA has almost €2 billion in reserves and holds 577 ha. That is enough land on which to build approximately 80,000 homes. Why is NAMA selling off homes to investment funds? Will the Government direct NAMA to prioritise cost-rental and affordable social homes?
The Taoiseach was quoted, as was the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. He can go and find it but it is a fact that he was quoted as saying that. This does not account for all the carbon that farmers are sequestering already. Does the Taoiseach realise that the Government is going to jeopardise the thousands of food processing jobs in this country, which provide quality food for Irish people and people all over the world? The Taoiseach been quoted. I would not raise it but it is out there.
It is in the papers, man. I remember the Deputy asked me where we got the evidence base on non-compliance and so on, and we got that subsequently in terms of other issues. Now the Deputy has produced something here but he cannot tell me where he got the quote.
Three Deputies are left because other Members went over time. It is a connected system. Not every Deputy can speak if someone goes over time because there is no time left. I need the co-operation of the Taoiseach and Members with everyone communicating through the chair. By way of exception, I will allow the three Members who patiently waited and did not add to this 30 seconds, with the Taoiseach then to respond. This is the last time I will allow this if Members do not co-operate.
Ba mhaith liom an bád lasta, nó cargo ship, a fhreastalaíonn ar Inis Meáin a ardú leis an Taoiseach. Bhí muintir Inis Meáin i dteagmháil liom ag rá nuair a bhris an aimsir anuraidh gur fágadh iad le droch-sheirbhís. Chaill siad suas le hocht dturas idir Deireadh Fómhair agus an Nollaig. I mbliana tá siad tar éis turas amháin a chailleadh cheana féin. Faigheann an Bád seo fóirdheontas ón Rialtas agus tá gnólachtaí Inis Meáin agus muintir Inis Meáin ag brath air. Iarraim ar an Taoiseach é sin a fhiosrú.
I want to ask the Taoiseach about the retired County Kerry judge, James O'Connor, about whom I have previously raised shocking cases of abuse of power and an example of institutional sexism. When I last raised the cases with the Taoiseach, he said, "I am very concerned about it and about what I have read today in the articles the Deputy mentioned. I will give further consideration to this and revert to the Deputy." What conclusion has the Taoiseach come to in terms of avoiding this happening in the future?
About half the population of County Cavan, more than 35,000 people, live in and around Cavan town and its environs. The area has a deprivation index of disadvantage. Within that, however, are areas that are designated as being very disadvantaged with a high lone parent ratio, age dependency, very high unemployment and very low levels of educational attainment. There is an urgent need to address disadvantage and deprivation in Cavan town, in particular, through youth services. We talked about the youth justice strategy last week or the week before. If we are serious about implementing that, we need to put resources into breaking the intergenerational deprivation and disadvantage in Cavan around youth. What plans are there to provide funding to support this?
I believe the Taoiseach would be very appreciative of the role local media have played in providing accurate and reliable information throughout the Covid-19 process. There is an intense interest in work of the Future of Media Commission. I understand the Taoiseach met the chairperson. When will we see the product of its work? Will the Government be making an announcement in that regard?
I thank the Deputy. I will accept those last four questions and the Taoiseach will respond. Deputy Paul Murphy used a former judge's name and made allegations. I remind him to be careful in that regard and regarding the separation of powers.
Maidir leis an tseirbhís bháid d’Inis Meáin, déanfaidh mé fiosrú ar an gceist. Táimid sásta aon tacaíocht gur féidir linn a thabhairt chun an tseirbhís sin a choimeád agus déileáil le cásanna na muintire atá maireachtáil ann.
Regarding Deputy Paul Murphy's question, I have not come to a final conclusion on that issue. It is challenging in terms of what is possible, given that we are talking about a retired individual here and the matter has gone to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC.
To address Deputy Tully's question, the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, received additional resources in respect of youth services, particularly for young offender programmes. The budget was also significant in terms of the expansion of the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, programme. The Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, secured very significant funding, which could help in areas of significant deprivation and disadvantage in terms of additional educational support. That is a key underpinning for removing disadvantage into the future.
With regard to Deputy Bruton's point, we had an initial meeting with the Chair of the media commission. Government will give further consideration to it. There are substantive issues it has to consider. We will revert back to the House when we have come to those decisions.