Wednesday, 20 October 2021
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
As the Taoiseach knows, children from Donegal whose families have been affected and devastated by the mica scandal are protesting outside the Dáil and are standing in the rain as we speak. They left their homes and the hills of Donegal at 6 a.m. this morning. These children should not have had to travel all the way to Dublin. Like all others, these children should enjoy a carefree childhood and they should not have to worry about their homes crumbling around them. They should not have to witness the intense and often unbearable pressure that their parents and wider families live with every day.
On Monday we heard from Mackenzie McDaid, aged 12, speaking about how living in a mica-affected home impacts on her. She said:
I worry when I go to sleep that the roof is going to fall on top of me. I was sleeping in my bedroom and I heard a big bang and a big pile of plaster had fallen off the wall. There are 15 out of 16 in my class who have mica and know that they have mica. We would be very worried and we kind of comfort each other by talking to each other about it.
Outside the gates of the Dáil this morning more children told me of how they wish their home to be their happy place. They asked why they have to be afraid when they are playing in their home place. They had written to the Taoiseach and they asked him to come out and meet them. They are disappointed that they have not seen the Taoiseach and they want him to come out, look them in the eye and explain to them why they are living this nightmare.
The mica and pyrite scandal affects families in Donegal as well as families in Mayo, Sligo, Limerick, Clare and Tipperary. Support for all these victims of mica and pyrite is not just national but international because all of us can at least try to understand the heartache and trauma of your family home and sanctuary crumbling around you. The impact on people's mental health and relationships has been immense and families have been broken by this. In June I visited some of the homes again and on that visit I heard the stories of gable walls cracking, chimneys about to collapse and all of the misery this causes. I have spoken to people who live in caravans but who still pay a big mortgage for a home that is disintegrating. These families have asked me time and again to put their cases front and centre. That is why the motion for 100% redress came in June and it was passed unanimously by the Dáil but it seems to me it is being ignored by the Government.
Níl sé seo cóir ar na teaghlaigh seo. Tá cabhair uathu ón Rialtas chun deireadh a chur lena bpian. Dúirt an Taoiseach, an tAire Tithíochta, Rialtais Áitiúil agus Oidhreachta agus an tAire Caiteachais Phoiblí agus Athchóirithe go dtabharfadh siad cúnamh dóibh ach táimid anseo arís le leanaí ag agóid taobh amuigh den Dáil ionas go n-éistfidh an Rialtas leo. Caithfear seo a cheartú. I note that the Minister is to brief the Taoiseach and other leaders on a revised mica redress scheme this week but the only thing the families want to, need to or should hear is that the Government will deliver 100% redress, no ifs, buts or maybes. Those affected by the scandal have had their fill of promises and they have had enough tea and sympathy from Government. They want a solution. These families wait and wait while staring at cracks in their homes and enduring the cracks in their lives. This is a matter of justice. Does the Taoiseach support 100% redress? I want him to make that clear and to tell those standing outside that 100% redress is what will be delivered.
I checked with officials in my office before coming here and my office was not aware that an invitation had been issued to me to meet the group today. The Deputy should not politicise the issue in the way she did. I will meet groups and I went to Donegal and met homeowners. No party in this House has a monopoly on empathy and the Deputy does not either. Sinn Féin did not make this an issue in the 2020 general election. The reality is that there was not one mention of mica in its 2020 manifesto. In January 2020 Deputy Mac Lochlainn welcomed in good faith the scheme the last Government brought in.
This Government has been in office 15 months but the situation is shocking and it is terrible that children have to be outside Leinster House. We have heard the message and we want to get this comprehensively resolved for the owners of the homes. The homes are in a terrible condition in many instances and a range of issues have to be addressed. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, set up a working group arising from meetings I had in Donegal with homeowners and Donegal County Council during the summer. The mechanism by which the new scheme will have to be administered is key. It is not as simple as the Deputy presents it but things, of course, never are. The Deputy, from her perspective, will present it in a simplistic way.
Enormous provision will have to be made to deal with the mica situation to refurbish housing, to give guarantees and to underpin people's sense of security in their homes for the long term. A range of actors are involved in this, including insurance companies, and it seems to me that a lot of people have left the scene. The Government is now the one agency that can help the residents and homeowners and it intends to do that in a comprehensive way. The scheme will be far more significant than the last scheme, which was significant in itself and which the Deputy welcomed at the time.
You and Deputy Mac Lochlainn thought it was okay so let us not be all self-righteous, coming in and saying that you are the great guardian and defender. You are recreating the narrative.
I do not want to get into a political spat about this. I accept the genuine views of everybody in this House and I accept that they want this issue resolved for the residents involved. This situation has far-reaching implications nationally as well. Other counties are manifesting mica problems also and the Government has to take all those implications on board. The action we take on mica will have follow-on and consequential implications for other situations in housing so we are conscious of that.
Suffice to say that we accept that for children to grow up in that situation is unacceptable. It is shocking that bricks were produced to that poor quality, which has resulted in dangerous structures and which has ruined the dreams of many families. It is a basic human objective in life to provide safe and secure shelter for one's children and family and that has been ruined for many families because of the mica scandal. It falls to this Government, which has been in office for 15 months. We met the groups concerned during the summer and we are determined to comprehensively resolve this in the interests of the children and families who are picketing outside.
I cannot think of a more appropriately political issue than protecting and vindicating the rights of children. That is politics. The political choices made around this issue are what define the agony, torment and upset those children endure. You designed a scheme and it failed. We need a scheme that works.
Such a scheme would provide 100% redress for these families. I asked the Taoiseach a straightforward question; does he support and will he deliver 100% redress? I have heard alibis, excuses and an attack on my motivations but I have not heard any clarity from the Taoiseach and Head of Government. It is the Taoiseach's job to ensure these children get the relief and vindication of their rights that they deserve. As the Taoiseach is in the hot seat, I want to ask this simple question again. Does the Taoiseach support 100% redress or not? It is as simple as that.
It is extremely important that the Deputy does not continually present misinformation to the House. She just said that I designed a scheme; I designed no scheme.
It is all for political ends and electoral ends. Every time the Deputy does it, I will stop her in her tracks and say, "Stop peddling disinformation." I did not design any scheme and you know that-----
-----which was welcomed by Sinn Féin at the time. The scheme has to change. The residents that I met put very good issues to me at the time regarding upfront costs in terms of rental if they were out of their homes when the houses were being refurbished, but also certification so that if there was remedial work done and something happened in ten or 15 years' time, they would be covered. All of these were very legitimate issues, and that is the kind of engagement that has taken place-----
-----between the owners and the Minister. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, will come to the party leaders and the Government will then take a decision on that and share that with the House.
Yes. We know from yesterday that the Government's definition is unknown. After yesterday, there has been a lack of consistency, as I am sure the Taoiseach is aware. Many people have been in touch with me, my colleague, Deputy Sherlock, and all of us about what was announced. It is unworkable and incomprehensible. The Government should have consulted in advance. The cart was put before the horse. A number of weeks ago, we were one of the few parties in opposition that supported the extension of the regulations, so we understand where the increasing case numbers left the Government. However, this industry has been on its knees. We need consistency in the approach. The Covid certificate has to be enforced properly. We need industry buy-in in that regard. We also need to ensure that there are proper regulations and guidance around ventilation, something that always seems to be forgotten.
Speaking as someone who worked for Fáilte Ireland for nearly a decade, what is being put to it and others in terms of how they are meant to create rules around unnatural regulations will simply not work. A pub that changes into a night club cannot change its rules in a matter of minutes. People at live entertainment can stand up and dance, but if they are in a night club, they can only dance. This is all unnatural. We need to get back to first basics - personal responsibility, the 100% imposition of certificates, ventilation, etc. - but asking Fáilte Ireland and others to do this will not work. It is not natural and these rules are ridiculous. I hope the Government will bear that in mind.
It is a year since I first raised in the House the matter of antigen testing. We have lost a year, but now antigen testing is deemed important. Before we ever went to the convention centre, I stood up in this Chamber and asked about antigen tests because I used them to ensure protection when visiting my elderly parents. A year later, they are only now being considered. Will the Government use antigen testing in schools? The INTO has asked for this and I support it. Will the Government ensure that serial testing in nursing homes begins again for a period? It is a necessary and responsible thing to do.
We know what the healthcare sector, including hospitals, is facing into. Like the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, I am surprised that the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, and the Government have not made the decision to give booster vaccines to healthcare workers. Will the Taoiseach please ask NIAC to revert to the Government with recommendations in that regard within a number of days?
First of all, Deputy, I have to state that there are 464 people in hospital this morning. There are 74 in intensive care. My central objective and that of the Government is to protect lives and protect people's health. That has to be central to our consideration above and beyond anything. This is not giving out to anybody or criticising anybody, but it has to be central and it has to inform our approach.
Since the spring time, we have comprehensively, gradually and cautiously reopened society, with significant benefits. Thousands of people are back at work, less than 100,000 compared to 400,000 are now on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, consumer spending is surging and the economy is enjoying growth periods because of that cautious reopening. What is critical is that, as we reopen further in the context of a deteriorating situation in relation to the prevalence of the disease and its penetration into hospitals, we do so in a cautious way. That is the central message of yesterday. As I said yesterday, there will be sectoral guidance issued to different sectors, but what is extremely important is that it is ring-fenced for live entertainment and it does not spread right across the hospitality sector. That is very important, because otherwise that would have inherent dangers in terms of the spread of the disease. This is not simple and there are challenges, but we will work and we will get them resolved.
I recall the rows in the convention centre when we brought in the digital Covid certificate. One would have imagined at the time that we had abandoned everything - civil liberties and the whole lot of it - with parties attacking us left, right and centre for bringing in the digital Covid certificate, and now it is accepted as a key protective measure to enable not just the reopening of hospitality, but keeping it reopened.
Regarding the decisions yesterday, it was last Wednesday that the Government was alerted to the deteriorating situation. There was a meeting with senior officials and NPHET wanted a number of days more to see the pattern in terms of case numbers and so forth. Hence, there was a meeting of NPHET on Monday and the Government meeting on Tuesday. Government leaders considered NPHET's advice late Monday evening. I accept that the night time economy sector has not got great notice in relation to this, but that is because of how things have evolved.
The Deputy used a good phrase: "It is not natural". Covid is not natural, and that is the problem. Covid is not natural, there are many twists and turns with it and it can upset the best-laid plans. We thought two weeks ago that we would be opening without restrictions. That has changed. What we now must do is try to protect things.
In respect of antigen testing, to be fair to the Deputy, he was consistent in raising that issue. He knows, as we all do, that there have been different perspectives on it among public health experts and so on, but we are now ruling on it. The Deputy referred to NIAC and the Government. Let us be clear - the clinical advice is there, unless the Deputy is suggesting that we now override the national immunisation advisory committee.
I respect that the Government got this recommendation at the last minute, but it did not have to make the decision. It could have waited, consulted and then come forward. The regulations that will have to be introduced must place a greater emphasis on certification - almost a reboot, as others have said - but also concentrate on ventilation.
While I respect the fact that the situation has changed in the past week, I find it difficult to explain to the public how we got to this point. Is it because of vaccines not working as effectively as we thought, is it because many children under 16 years of age and-or 10% of adults are not vaccinated, or is it a combination of all three? The public needs this question answered. I want it answered. The Taoiseach needs to tell the public. He might tell the House where the Government is going in this respect.
The Taoiseach did not answer my question on booster vaccines for healthcare workers. Have we a timeline for when NIAC will revert on this matter? Can the Government set a timeline? Those workers all deserve to be looked after, given the length of time they have been vaccinated and the fact that we do not know its efficacy.
I think the Deputy has raised a fair point in terms of ventilation. Guidance has issued in respect of ventilation in our schools, which resulted in CO2 monitors being provided to schools across the length and breadth of the country.
Close to 90% of over-12s in the population have been vaccinated. The vaccines are very effective against severe illness, hospitalisation, death and admission to intensive care. Two thirds of people in intensive are unvaccinated. There is a waning effect. We know that. The manufacturers have said that, but also Israel and other authorities are essentially saying that, after six months, there is a waning effect. Now, there is a lot of academic work and research ongoing in respect of that, looking at the degree of antibodies required to protect against various levels of infection or illness, but suffice it to say that the Deputy has raised a very important point that we have to keep this under analysis.
The public health experts believe our close proximity to the UK, the high incidence of the disease as we were vaccinating, the Delta variant in particular, which is very transmissible, and the seasonality of our climate and resulting behaviours in terms of indoor activity could be factors in explaining why a country with high vaccination has very high incidence of the disease.
I wish to raise with the Taoiseach the serious crisis in University Hospital Kerry, UHK. Three weeks ago, eight senior consultants at University Hospital Kerry wrote to general practitioners and elected members stating: "Our hospital is in crisis since the second week of September." The letter went on to state that elective surgery has been cancelled, there are high numbers of patients on trolleys in the emergency department, there are staff shortages and staff burn-out, that no surgical day ward is operating and that the acute medical assessment unit is closed more often than it is open.
There are 2,300 people on waiting lists for elective surgery, many of them in pain. Elective surgery has been cancelled. Elderly people up to 90 years of age are on trolleys in corridors for two or three days as they wait for a bed. That is not right. A respectable senior citizen who operated a highly respectable business in Killarney for many years died on a trolley in Tralee hospital. UHK needs 100 additional nurses. We need an independent assessment and external review to identify what has gone wrong in order that we can rectify the situation. I am told that senior decision-makers and on-call management rotas are practically non-existent at weekends, that elderly people are being sent home in ambulances without a homecare plan in place, with many of those who can walk being sent home in taxis, that ambulances are queuing for three to four hours waiting to unload at the accident and emergency department and that ambulances assigned to Kerry, which operate on a 12-hour shift basis, are being redeployed at the start of a shift to areas in Cork and as far away as Dungarvan and that they often complete that shift in Clonmel, leaving Kerry unserviced during that entire shift. Reconfiguration of the ambulance service in 2012 has resulted in a reduction of service in Kerry. Staff are exhausted, mentally and physically. Last month, there were 422 patients on trolleys while four years ago, there were only 114 people on trolleys. The week before last there were 84 people on trolleys.
Never before has a crisis of the dimensions I have set out existed in Kerry. I ask the Taoiseach to deal with this matter urgently.
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue in the House today. The Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, also met the consultants and would have notified me of the situation as articulated by the consultants, and as articulated this afternoon by the Deputy. It is an issue that the HSE is engaging with. Suffice to say, Covid has had a very significant impact on our hospitals.
It has had an extraordinary impact, along with the cyberattack. Both have had a huge pressurising impact on people working on the front line. The degree to which the cyberattack impacted on many clinicians in the aftermath of the high point of Covid is not widely appreciated. Access to data, records and so forth was undermined by the cyberattack. That said, I want to make clear to the Deputy that the resources are there to deal with staffing issues. Last year alone, the HSE hired approximately 6,000 staff, which was the largest ever recruitment in any one year.
There is funding this year to hire a further 8,000 full-time permanent staff in 2022. That is a significant resource. We need to accelerate the HR side of this in terms of recruitment, but the funding is there to recruit additional staff. That applies across the country, including in Tralee. Additional funding has been allocated to the national clinical programmes. In terms of staffing, skill mix and so on, funding has been provided in the budget. Approximately 5 million homecare hours have been provided to alleviate the pressures on hospitals and to facilitate flow through hospitals and so forth. An additional 12,150 community short-term, rehab and intermediate care beds were provided. Funding was provided for that in 2021. There has been a very significant expansion.
I will engage with the HSE on the specifics of some of the issues raised by the Deputy. The Minister has provided €350 million in the budget to deal with waiting lists and waiting times and to get the numbers waiting undue lengths of time on trolleys down. I sympathise with the person - I do not know if the Deputy knew the person - who passed in very unacceptable circumstances. As I said, the resources are there to deal with this issue. I will engage with the HSE in terms of the specific issues that the consultants have identified and communicated to all of the public representatives in the Kerry region, as articulated today by the Deputy.
I thank the Taoiseach. He mentioned that the Minister, Deputy Foley, brought this matter to his attention. What has the Taoiseach done since the Minister brought it to his attention? On behalf of the people of Kerry, I ask the Taoiseach to ensure that action is urgently taken to address this crisis to prevent people from dying unnecessarily. We need a resumption of elective surgery for the many people who are waiting and suffering in severe pain. We need an external and independent review of what has gone wrong so that the hospital can return to providing a safe level of care. That is what I am asking for.
We need to ask retired nurses to return to work. In light of the current crisis, we need the many highly skilled nurses who have retired to return for one, two or three days per week. We are in dire need in Kerry and urgent and drastic action is required to rectify the situation. People's health is their wealth. We must put the health of our people before anything else.
Action will be taken. The HSE has confirmed to me that the resources are in place to deal with some of the issues raised by the Deputy, including staff recruitment and measures to alleviate pressures on emergency departments. Presentations to our hospitals are higher than the 2019 levels. We are maintaining the full range of activities, in addition to the Covid issues. Hospitals are under a lot of pressure. I am not disputing that. I will engage further with the HSE and the Minister for Health in regard to the situation in Tralee. The Deputy spoke about the need for an external review. The HSE has systems in place-----
Hear me out, please. The HSE has mechanisms that it can deploy to hospitals if there are issues around governance, which is what the Deputy seems to be implying. I do not know if that is the point he is making in regard to the external review. The HSE has at its disposal units and mechanism to make sure that issues like this are rectified.
Yesterday, Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett raised with the Taoiseach some very serious questions in regard to the role of NAMA but his reply, as usual, did not deal with the issues raised. I will try to make the matter very simple.
Will the Taoiseach's Government, through the Minister responsible, instruct NAMA to provide the following: a map and details of land it currently holds, the locations, the size, the planning permissions and a commercial viability analysis; a list of property portfolios, especially vacant units; information on who NAMA is selling to and for how much; and information on whether NAMA receivers evicting are tenants? This information is crucial if we are to have an informed debate on NAMA, the role it is currently playing and on why is a State agency selling new houses it is building at prices at the top of the market. It is selling two- and three-bedroom apartments in Dublin for prices starting at €525,000. It is pushing for the maximum prices, thus fuelling rising house prices. Why is it not being used to solve the housing and rental crises?
I welcome the fact the Deputy has raised this issue because I checked the issue raised in the House yesterday by Deputy Boyd Barrett. The narrative I have received is somewhat different from that presented yesterday. For example, during Leaders' Questions, I think Deputy Boyd Barrett made reference to the article in the Business Poston properties located in Finglas, several of which were reported to have been vacant. NAMA does not own the apartments in question, rather it acquired the debtor's loans which were secured by various apartments located in a larger development in Finglas. The apartments were controlled by a receiver who was appointed in December 2012. While the apartments had been completed prior to NAMA acquiring the loans, the receiver discovered after his appointment that the apartments were not fully compliant with relevant health and safety requirements and needed necessary remediation works, which were funded by NAMA. NAMA provided in excess of €10 million in funding to the receiver in order to remediate the apartments. This remediation commenced in 2017. Some 26 of the apartments which were remediated first were left vacant in order to temporarily house tenants who had to vacate other apartments in the wider development while the remediation works were being carried out on the units they occupied. That is much different from what was presented yesterday. This is standard practice and ensures tenants are appropriately accommodated in the same location while works are under way on their homes. These remediation works were not fully completed until 2020. At this point, unexpected delays were encountered due to the pandemic and the need to resolve complex legal issues, inter alia, with Dublin City Council, which were not resolved until June of this year. These issues impeded the receiver's ability to lease or sell the apartments sooner. As a result the apartments were not leased prior to being placed on the open market by the receiver this June. Before placing the units on the market, NAMA confirmed with Dublin City Council that it had no appetite to acquire the units. While NAMA does not own residential properties, it ensures its debtors and receivers keep vacant periods in residential properties to a minimum. The presentation of this yesterday differs significantly from the facts there.
There is a wider issue with respect to NAMA's overall role and the legislation that underpinned the creation of the agency was fundamentally different from that in terms of the housing situation and the situation we are currently in. NAMA has on previous occasions offered blocks of housing and apartments to local authorities. Some have been taken up and some have not been. There is an ongoing issue, which we will keep under review, with how NAMA evolves in the coming while and the contribution it can make to helping with the provision of more housing and resolving the housing crisis.
I thank the Taoiseach. What I know is that NAMA has €1.2 billion in funding reserves and 577 ha of residential development land, and that is a headline figure. That landholding and those cash reserves are capable of delivering up to 80,000 affordable and cost-rental homes. We know NAMA has been selling apartments for up to €500,000 and more. I put it to the Taoiseach and his Government that we must have a proper discussion and debate around NAMA and its role. We need that information and we need a map with details on the land the agency currently holds, which is what I asked the Taoiseach for. We need a list of property portfolios, especially vacant units. We must know who NAMA is selling properties to and for how much, and whether NAMA receivers are evicting tenants. That is going to be crucial to a conversation all of us in the House would benefit from having. We must have a proper debate around NAMA and its role.
I have no issue with the Deputy's point that we could do with a debate. I have no issue with a debate on NAMA's role. We are very clear the statutory underpinning of NAMA is one that must also be respected. NAMA represents the taxpayers and has an obligation to get value for them. That must be balanced with the current housing situation and our issues around housing. The Housing for All strategy provides an unprecedented level of Government funding for the provision of social houses. We have a target of building 9,000 this year. There is affordable housing and so forth. I would welcome and facilitate a debate on NAMA and its role. I do not see any reason NAMA cannot provide transparent information on its property portfolio, such as maps and so on, to the public and the House.