Thursday, 21 October 2021
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
In its wisdom, the Government in July pegged rents to inflation. That was at a time when we were warning about rising prices and my colleague, Deputy Eoin Ó Broin, said this measure was too little, too late, and tenants would be left at the mercy of unpredictable and high inflation.
Three months on, what has happened? It is exactly as we said. Inflation is now running at over 4.3%, meaning a tenant subject to a landlord's review today could see the rent pushed up by 4.3%. Somebody in Dublin paying the average rent of €1,848 per month could see the rent increased by a landlord by over €950 per year. Does the Minister agree the Government has made a dog's dinner of this matter? Does he agree that the Government must implement the proposals Sinn Féin has advocated for years now?
Will the Government introduce a rent freeze to cover the next three years and bring in a refundable tax credit, which would put a month's rent back into renters' pockets?
The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has introduced five Bills in this House on the rental sector. While much of this legislation may have related to Covid emergency measures, there is no shortage of ambition to address the rental crisis. I understand the Minister now intends to progress, with the greatest urgency, a specific new renters Bill to address headline inflation rate being above 4%, a development that was not expected. He will introduce a Bill in the House in the coming weeks that will address the issue, in recognition that we have to give protection to renters at this time of high inflation.
I raise an issue relevant to the climate crisis and our biodiversity emergency. It is about water quality in Dublin Bay, in particular. Will the Government provide a timetable for the introduction of an amendment to Statutory Instrument 79 of 2008, the bathing water quality regulations? On foot of a meeting I had with a great organisation, SOS Dublin Bay, we ask that an amendment be introduced to provide local authorities with the discretion to determine the bathing season for the purpose of monitoring water quality at beaches and swimming areas. We believe this is an important issue to ensure we move away from the highly restrictive swimming season definition, currently 1 June to 15 September, provided in the regulations. Local authorities, such as Dublin City Council and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, should instead be given discretion to ensure the monitoring of water quality all year around, where relevant and necessary. This would greatly improve our public amenity in Dublin Bay and biodiversity, and it would tackle the climate crisis.
Thousands of people are swimming throughout the year. Last weekend, the water temperature was still high for this time of year, perhaps as a consequence of climate change. No matter how cold the water gets, swimmers will bathe throughout the winter. I agree with the Deputy that we need to give greater flexibility to local authorities in defining the bathing season. It does not end in September; perhaps it did 20 or 30 years ago except for a small handful of hardy people, but that is no longer the case. The same applies across the country. There are huge benefits to be gained from swimming in our waters throughout the year. We need to know what the water quality is and continue with ultraviolet radiation of water coming from the water station in Poolbeg, as an example of what the implications are. I will come back to this matter specifically. I do not have the details to hand on how we could make an amendment to the statutory instrument. However, I support it and hope the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, will advance it.
I welcome the announcement by the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, of an additional €1.15 million for specialist eating disorder teams. However, due to years of underinvestment, it is an understatement to say this service falls far short of what is needed. No funding was allocated under the national eating disorder treatment plan in 2020, and of the €1.6 million allocated in 2019, not one cent was spent. There are just three impatient beds for eating disorders in the entire country, all of which are in Dublin. People with severe eating disorders are forced to travel to the UK for treatment. Yesterday, I was contacted by a deeply concerned family member of an adolescent with severe anorexia who cannot get the treatment she needs publicly or privately here. What assurances will the Minister give this family and so many others who have been in contact with my office that they will get the care they need? It is disgraceful that we have only three impatient beds.
I agree with the Deputy that this is an issue of great concern. There has been a significant increase in the number of cases in recent years and coming out of Covid. This is one indicator of the effects Covid has had on the broader public's mental health. It is an acute issue. The Deputy's argument, which I am inclined to agree with, is that this is a funding issue rather than a legislative omission. The health budget has increased to more than €22 billion. For the first time ever at a Cabinet meeting I have attended at this time of year, we did not consider a Supplementary Estimate for the health budget. The budget allocation given to the health service should provide for the targeting of this area, which I support.
There has been a lot of talk from this Government about rewarding workers and providing them with a better deal after all they did for us during Covid. There are many complexities to that and we expect announcements and so on. One issue the Government could resolve is to give workers the right to be trade unionists and represent other workers in their jobs without suffering victimisation. In that regard, I raise the case of a shop steward working on a site on Cork Street where public housing is being built and on which the contractor is Sisk. He was sacked five days ago simply because he raised issues about overtime being docked from workers on spurious grounds. On his arrival at work the next day, he was told there was no work for him, even though the site is in full swing. This is a public site on which public housing is being built, where a shop steward for the Independent Workers Union was sacked. I ask that Minister look into this case and, more generally, does something to protect trade unionists and shop stewards who are simply acting on behalf of workers.
It is difficult to comment on a specific case. If the Deputy sends me the details, I will look into it. I agree with the general point about supporting the role of and acknowledging the need for and benefit of trade unions in our country. The strength of our country is that we have a partnership approach in which trade unions have a critical role to play. When the rights of people are infringed, as in the example provided, we need mechanisms to protect them. Trade unions have a valuable and important role. I do not disagree with the Deputy's general argument but I cannot comment on the specifics of the case.
The Minister will be aware that, thankfully, a significant number of people throughout the country are now microgenerating electricity from photovoltaic, or PV, solar panels on their homes, farms and businesses. They are doing this for two reasons, namely, environmental and financial. However, they are supplying surplus energy to the national grid and are not receiving remuneration for it. When does the Minister expect these fine people will be properly remunerated for the service they are providing? Given that so much spare roof space is available for solar panels on farms throughout the country, does the Minister agree that there is potential for us to drastically reduce our climate emissions while, significantly, providing an additional income source for hard-pressed farm families?
I agree with the Deputy that there is huge potential for a further income stream for farms and householders, particularly when fossil fuel energy prices are so high. The more solar panels we put on roofs of farm buildings, houses and businesses, the better. This has been a source of real frustrations for me. We hoped to have this over the line by the summer. It has been delayed by difficulties in processing the complex European legislation through the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel. I had a meeting with the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, last week. I was reassured that by early January, all the necessary instruments should be in place. The CRU held a consultation on the approach two or three weeks ago. It is being finalised and will be in place in January. We will then consider grant and other support systems to enhance it. It makes a lot of sense.
The SouthDoc overnight service in Castletownbere, which serves the people of Ardgroom, Eyeries, Allihies, Adrigole and Glengarriff, as well as Lauragh in south Kerry, has been non-existent for the past six weeks. In spite of numerous communications received from the Minister from Health, Deputy Simon Donnelly, during these weeks indicating that the issue had been resolved, the truth on the ground is that last night there was no out-of-hours doctor service in Castletownbere. It seems the people of the Beara Peninsula will, once again, be without a GP service overnight during the coming weekend. What is wrong here? The only remedy the HSE provided was to send a doctor without a car to cover some nights recently. As there is little or no public transport on our peninsula, the only way we figured this doctor could get to a house if he was called out was to thumb a lift.
This is beyond a joke. Can the Minister imagine the people of Dublin being told today that they would have no out-of-hours doctor service for the weekend ahead? There would be a national outcry and the issue would be resolved in minutes. I ask the Minister to personally intervene in this mess and to provide a full-time out-of-hours SouthDoc service for the people of the Beara Peninsula immediately.
I can imagine the real concern not being able to get a GP out of hours is causing for the people of the Beara Peninsula. From my understanding, we are having difficulty in even getting a GP in many areas, let alone an out-of-hours service. That is a real concern. What is the problem within our health system? Many doctors are qualifying in our universities, at real expense to the State in many cases. It is right that we meet that expense but we are not able to get the number of GPs we need to meet our basic needs, in which I include out-of-hours services for areas such as the Beara Peninsula. I will pass on the details of the specific issue on the Beara Peninsula the Deputy is concerned about because that is the most immediate issue, but there is also a wider strategic question as to why we are finding it so difficult to get GPs to develop their careers and their practices in rural areas.
You can get a vet but not a GP in rural Ireland.
Like the Minister, I look forward to the plant at Moneypoint becoming a green energy hub. I hope hydrogen will be manufactured there using energy generated by harnessing the power of the Atlantic. In the meantime, it is slated for closure in 2025. The Minister suggested that decision might be revisited given the energy shortages. Will he give us an update on that? At the very least, will he assure us that we will not be importing energy because if we import energy, we will be importing energy generated from coal? Britain has ramped up coal-powered stations in response to the energy shortage. France and Germany also have such stations. In the short term, what is going to be done about our energy shortage? Will Moneypoint be part of the solution? Will the Minister assure us that we will not be importing coal-generated power from other countries?
In answering an earlier question, I mentioned that we have a problem with energy security. Some of our gas-fired power stations have been down. It is likely that Moneypoint will continue to operate up to 2025 to provide back-up power when the wind is not blowing or other gas-fired generators are not available for any one of a variety of reasons. I do not envisage it operating beyond 2025. I will be pushing my Department, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, which is the energy regulator, and others to try to ensure we have the flexible open-cycle back-up capacity needed to give us balancing power, rather than having to rely on Moneypoint. Neither Moneypoint nor the station at Tarbert are suited to that role. The plants were designed to run constantly rather than to be switched on and switched off. They take a long time to heat up and do not work well in that sort of flexible back-up role.
If I may finish with one further point, the Deputy mentioned energy importation. As I mentioned earlier on, I was at the North Seas Energy Cooperation conference yesterday. All the talk at that conference was about Ireland having opportunities for export because, particularly on the west coast, we have that power-----
In recent hours, the Garda Commissioner has gone on the record saying that proposed legislation to overhaul oversight of An Garda Síochána would lead to him spending more time reporting to oversight bodies than overseeing policing and leading the service. He said that the policing, security and community safety Bill 2021, as it currently stands, would lead to dysfunctional micromanagement and that the Bill would grant powers to the proposed new Garda ombudsman which would be disproportionate and unconstitutional and which would not withstand an expensive and time-consuming test in the courts. Does the Minister agree that it is an unhealthy sign in our democracy that the Garda Commissioner feels unheard by Government and is compelled to address an Oireachtas committee to this effect? Is the Government listening to the Garda Commissioner's concerns?
The Government has always listened to the Garda Commissioner. My understanding is that the legislation the Deputy is concerned about is at the pre-legislative scrutiny stage. That is probably the best place for all of us to discuss this. Members of the Government parties are on the committee as well as members of the Opposition. Part of the role of the committee's pre-legislative scrutiny is to provide an opportunity to listen to the Garda Commissioner. That is the system working appropriately. I would listen to his words with real care. I would also listen to the questioning of the Government representatives on the committee.
Regional air connectivity is vital for business and tourism on our island nation. The strategic Aer Lingus Heathrow route has returned to Shannon Airport on a temporary basis while the runway at Cork Airport is being refurbished. It is critical for business, tourism and regional development that the three return flights a day from Shannon to Heathrow are restored as soon as possible. I welcome the provision of €90 million in the recent budget to restore and underpin strategic routes. Will the Minister indicate to the House when he expects the Shannon-Heathrow route to return to three return flights a day, incorporating an early morning flight and a late evening flight, which are vital for business and tourism connectivity?
I agree with the Deputy about that route and others. For Shannon in particular, the connection to Heathrow is a vital part of connectivity for business and other interests in the region. I listened with interest to the radio this morning as various industry and university representatives spoke about how the region is still strong. The industrial estate in Shannon is still a really strong attractor of talent but that talent needs to be able to connect to other places. The Government included a significant package of supports for the aviation sector in the budget. The follow-on from that as to how Aer Lingus and others deploy their fleets is a matter for them. We do not run the airlines. I agree with the Deputy and expect that the supports that have been provided will see a return to more frequent services. I believe the Deputy said there were previously three services a day from Shannon to Heathrow. I would think that will be a very attractive prospect for the airline as well as the region.
We knew before the pandemic that drugs had taken a hold in every town and village in the country. Over recent weeks, prominent figures in the GAA have highlighted gambling, drug use and addiction within the sport. We can be sure that these issues are not restricted to the GAA and will be evident across all sports. Will the Government work with all sporting bodies in the country to examine this issue and see what strategies and supports can be developed to assist our athletes when they find themselves in personal turmoil due to addiction and are in need of our support?
I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue. We are now midway through the term of the national drugs strategy, Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery. We are looking at a health-led approach because, unfortunately, drugs are in every town and village in the country. The Garda and all stakeholders are working as hard as possible. There is already a lot of collaboration with local organisations such as the GAA. We are only too delighted to work with them.
I addressed the issue of problem gambling in the Seanad this morning. We hope that we will be dealing with the gambling industry and the Department of Justice to introduce measures which provide money for counselling and supports for those suffering with gambling addiction. Again, it is insidious and is to be found in every town and village in the country. Online gambling is a very significant issue. I thank the Deputy for raising these two very important issues.
Last night, while the Minister and his Government were in here voting against renters and for landlords, five young people in Cork were forcefully, illegally and violently evicted from their home. This was not just an illegal eviction. The father of one of the girls staying there was knocked to the ground and put in a stranglehold while trying to defend his daughter from being evicted illegally. The landlord wanted to evict these young people in order to put the property on Airbnb to make a quick buck. It has gone beyond greed. As a result of this Government's inability to protect renters, landlords think they are above the law, above humanity and above morality. Will the Minister and his Government finally stand up, protect renters and stop these illegal and violent evictions?
The Government will stand up for renters. I do not know the specifics of the case but what the Deputy has said would raise real concerns. I presume it is a matter for the Garda or others to investigate. My colleagues, the Ministers, Deputies Catherine Martin and Darragh O'Brien, and others are examining ways in which we get the balance right in terms of Airbnb. For too long, it was about the interests of the short-term Airbnb-type approach versus the need of local communities to be able to rent property. That is one of the examples where we will examine changing the approach. It is not to say "No" to Airbnb-----
We need further action on the upgrading of the R312 from Castlebar to Bellacorick. As the Minister is aware, Mayo County Council received €850,000 this year under the specific improvements grant scheme to progress safety upgrades specifically for the Glenisland bridge replacement and road alignment project. While the new bridge is very welcome and will soon be opened by the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, much more needs to be done to improve the overall safety of the road. The R312 serves as a vital artery to large parts of north-west Mayo. It serves a key route to Bangor Erris, Belmullet, the Mullet Peninsula and Blacksod Bay. Attention will soon turn to the remaining stretches of road that are quite simply unsafe for regular users of the road. I ask that the Minister's Department, along with Mayo County Council, respond to requests for future upgrades on regional roads like the R312.
I thank the Deputy. I am aware that the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, is due to open the upgraded bridge in Glenisland, which is very welcome. We need to invest in safety and connectivity to the likes of north-west Mayo, which needs good access. My understanding is that in recent weeks, Mayo County Council has sent my Department some proposals on further upgrades to the road. We have not had time to consider them. That is the current situation. The upgraded bridge will be opened and we will then look at further proposals.
I wish to highlight the ongoing plans of apartheid Israel to expand illegal settlements in strategic locations which will cut the West Bank in two and separate Jerusalem from the rest of Palestine. Five hundred and forty new homes were approved recently in Har Homa. These settlement expansion plans are designed to disrupt Palestinian territorial continuity and bury hopes of a two-state solution. Will the Minister raise this issue with the Cabinet and ensure that Ireland uses its position on the UN Security Council to sanction apartheid Israel for these plans?
I do not think this is an issue that divides us. There is widespread concern in the House about the fate of a lot of Palestinian communities in the West Bank and, if I am using the right term, the effective annexation, a term which was used to describe some of the new settlement patterns. We share that concern and express it on the international stage and within Cabinet discussions there would be a similar perspective. I agree with the Deputy. This is an ongoing concern for every Member of the House.
Recently, the HSE made cuts to primary eye care for medical card patients. Under the medical card scheme, a patient can get an eye test every two years, or on a yearly basis if there is a medical need. This was written into the contract opticians have with the HSE. Opticians in Tullow, Carlow and Bagenalstown have contacted me to tell me how they have used the scheme to examine patients with eye issues that can be monitored locally rather than requiring a hospital appointment the wait for which, as the Minister knows, can be lengthy. This scheme is not being continued. I do not understand the confusion. In the budget we extended dental care to all medical card holders, which I welcomed. However, people who have medical cards will now not receive eye care. I am constantly highlighting the fact that some doctors are charging people with medical cards for blood tests. This is unacceptable. We need to make sure that those who have medical cards, who are the most vulnerable, are looked after. During the pandemic some dentists did not take patients with medical cards. Can we look at changing the contracts with the HSE? What is happening is unacceptable and absolutely ridiculous.
I accept the concerns the Deputy has set out, but I wish to provide some detail. Additional funding of €10 million has been provided in budget 2022, on top of the existing level of service provision of €56 million. This additional allocation should enable progress to be made in addressing issues around service provision for medical card patients in 2022, which are the sort of measures the Deputy is concerned about. I understand that under the dental treatment services scheme, DTSS, which provides dental care free of charge to medical card holders aged over 16, services are provided by independent dental practitioners who have a contract with the HSE. It was always the intention of the Department to undertake a complete review of that contract when the new national oral health policy was launched. The Covid pandemic has caused the roll-out of the policy to be delayed and the proposed contract review to be deferred. As I understand it, it is still very much the intention to address the long-term issue.
Project Ireland 2040 set a home retrofit target rate to see dirty fossil fuels taken out of our home heating systems by 2035. However, based on the rate of home retrofitting announced in last week's budget, it will now be 2050 before that is actually achieved. Yet, in order to reach our 2030 carbon budget goals we need to remove these fossil fuels from heating systems before the end of the decade. How much new money is going into retrofitting schemes next year? Why is there a 50% shortfall in what was actually committed to in 2018?
The biggest shortfall in the past year has been due to the Covid pandemic. We made a decision, in respect of retrofitting in people's homes, that it would not be possible in the first half of the year.
There is a significant further increase in funding for next year. There is €109 million for the warmer home schemes. I understand the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage has allocated €85 million for local authority housing. From memory, I understand approximately €120 million has also been allocated. A significant budget is available. That will not be the constraint. The first constraint will be in the public uptake. The second constraint will be the availability of workers. That is why the State is also investing significantly in apprenticeship schemes. The Minister, Deputy Harris, is putting in place measures in SOLAS and other training systems so that we can develop workers. Budget will not be the limiting factor in the next two to three years. We need to ramp things up and then scale up beyond that.
An additional €60 million is being provided for a loan support scheme for householders who will raise finance for their own homes. The Oireachtas joint committee set out the level of ambition. I understand the target is 500,000 houses during this decade. The Deputy is right; it would take three decades under that timetable. If at the end of that every single home is insulated that will be of huge benefit not just in terms of climate but also health.
Ten thousand people will march on the streets of Navan on 30 October in support of our accident and emergency department. The HSE is determined to close it. While there has been a stay of execution for a few months, this is not good enough for the 210,000 people who live in County Meath. Accident and emergency and ICU departments are the front line in the battle against Covid, yet the Government is closing accident and emergency and ICU departments in Navan. Waits of ten or 11 hours are not unusual in Drogheda's accident and emergency department and the staff of Connolly Hospital Blanchardstown protested because of conditions in their accident and emergency department just last week. Will the Minister commit to overturning the Government policy to close the accident and emergency department in Navan? Will he commit to the proper funding of the accident and emergency department in order that people can get timely treatment when it is needed?
There is a crisis in the Irish dental industry and access to dentistry. We are seeing it most acutely in the exodus from the DTSS but the reasons for it go much deeper and are much more fundamental. The Minister said he is committed to reviewing the scheme but there is no real evidence of this, despite saying that work began in 2019. When will the Government start taking this seriously? It is very important. Many people do not have access to dental services. When will the scheme to update the Dentists Act 1985 be ready?
In regard to Our Lady's Hospital, Navan, my understanding is that the HSE is clear on the transition of Navan to what it calls a model 2 hospital. The policy approach is based on very good medical and scientific advice.
It involves major expansion. I understand from the figures I am provided that capital works are under way this year to bring a second theatre into operation as part of the increasing of ambulatory and day care surgery capacity at Navan hospital from approximately 2,500 elective surgical procedures to 5,000.
The argument made by the health system - we have to charge the HSE with the optimising of the forms of hospital we have - is that this model 2, and I think Navan hospital is the last of nine hospitals which have been transferred and changed in this way-----
I believe that getting that next tier down of hospitals is critical to getting them expanded and getting them doing more work. That is, I understand, what will happen in Navan, subject to medical advice.
Lastly, I do not have the details Deputy Duncan Smith is looking for but I will ask the officials to provide them in order that he has that information.