Thursday, 11 November 2021
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCeann Comhairle. A number of weeks ago the Minister, Deputy Ryan, appointed two friends to the Climate Change Advisory Council. This was despite a recommendation from the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment and Climate Action recommending that there should be an open, competitive and transparent process attached to such appointments. I am sure the Minister is aware, more than most of us in this House, of the need for this given the stroke that he tried to pull in the summer in appointing a former Cabinet colleague to makey-up job. At that time he said lessons needed to be learned from that but they clearly have not been because the Minister, Deputy Ryan, has done it all over again. I am sure the two members appointed are eminently qualified but that does not preclude or take away from the fact that Government appointments should be transparent and open and that has not happened in this instance.
Will the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, come before the House to explain this appointment process?
I am sure there will be an opportunity to ask the Minister his rationale in the context of these appointments. My understanding is that both of these individuals are eminently qualified for the job they are being asked to do. I am sure the Minister will give full details of the basis of that decision and how it came about.
The position with regard to some of the new Garda divisional headquarters and areas is mental. I do not say that lightly. It is crazy. The Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, AGSI, has brought to my attention issues with new divisions in Cork, Monaghan, Louth, Meath, Westmeath, Laois, Offaly and Kildare. The one relating to my county is insane. The headquarters are in Ennis in County Clare. There are headquarters in Limerick, Ennis and Galway. A lot of business is done in and large volumes of traffic go through Tipperary, but it does not have a headquarters. Imagine travelling from Ballyvaughan to Carrick-On-Suir across an area comprising 2,000 sq km. The scale of the division is too big. The AGSI has expressed serious concerns that its members will be able to operate within it. I ask that the divisions be re-examined. I met the Garda Commissioner to discuss this matter over a period of two years, without satisfaction. From a Government and a security point of view, can the Minister ask that the divisions be re-examined?
There has been a welcome emphasis over the past number of weeks on the environment and what we need to do to protect it. One of the things we need to do is to introduce legal protections for the environment. An ecocide law would do that. A legal definition of "ecocide" has been proposed by the independent expert panel. We now need a head of state to formally propose an ecocide amendment to the Rome Statute. Will the Government take the lead on this issue and work with the panel to progress the definition of ecocide and its subsequent incorporation into the Rome Statute?
A number of weeks ago, six human rights organisations were designated as terrorist organisations by the State of Israel. A number of these organisations receive funding from Irish Aid. The allegations made against them are extremely serious and are designed to smear anybody who stands against Israel's continued brutal occupation of Palestine. Israel will continue to do this with impunity and will give the Minister and his EU counterparts the complete runaround regarding its crimes. If that is the case, as we have said many times why it does this country and the European Union continue to treat Israel like a normal state? It is not a normal state. It is an abnormal state. It continues to brutalise NGOs that stand for human rights, and it is also continuing with its brutal occupation of Palestine.
As the Deputy probably knows, I have probably been more vocal on this issue than any other foreign minister on the planet. I was in the Middle East last week. I visited Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Jordan. I appeared on international and national media to voice my concern about the fact that the six Palestinian NGOs were effectively designated as terrorist organisations. I have not seen any evidence to give that designation any credibility. We provide modest funding to two of the six organisations concerned, Al-Haq and Addameer, both of which are active in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. One works with prisoners and the other on advocacy and taking legal cases. We met representatives from both organisations while in Ramallah. My senior officials met them in order to provide as much reassurance as we could to them from our perspective. I have been clear and vocal on this issue. We have asked for evidence from the Israeli Government and I certainly have not seen it.
I want to raise an important issue relating to Galway County Council. There has been a serious lack of money in the local government fund for the council Galway for many number of years. The perception is that Galway County Council is being punished for the fact it has not amalgamated with Galway City Council. The expert advisory group set up to examine the amalgamation recommended that the existing deficiencies relating to human and financial resources be expeditiously resolved as an essential prerequisite to the amalgamation process. Galway County Council will run a deficit of €4.5 million next year if its members decide to pass a budget. So far, all of the municipal districts have rejected the budget presented by the executive. I ask that, once and for all, the cloak is lifted on how funding is being given to local authorities and, in particular, to Galway County Council, which presides over the single biggest area geographically in the entire country. The area in question is larger than that in Cork because of the process that has happened there. Given the geographical layout of the county, it is important that it is done.
The local property tax, LPT, allocation for next year to Galway County Council is €14.5 million. That includes €2.7 million in equalisation funding. As the Deputy knows, it is open to councillors to decide whether they want to increase LPT rates. That has happened in Clare, Limerick, Donegal and Sligo, which have all decided to increase their rates by 15%. Mayo decided to increase it by 10% and Kerry by 7.5%. Leitrim and Roscommon also raised their LPT rate for next year by 15%. I wish to reassure the Deputy that there is no question of Galway County Council being punished for anything. It made its decisions. The important thing is that we provide resources for Galway County Council to be able to provide adequate services for the people it is serving. I will raise this issue with the Minister directly and ask him to come back to the Deputy.
My question relates to the route decided on in respect of the Newcastle West bypass in Limerick. Concerned citizens are very upset about how the bypass system is working because they are relying on social media rather than Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, and the design team to get information on a road that is going to go through their houses. I want the Minister to set out guidelines for people in order that they will have information, from the time a route is decided, on procurement, the time it will take for each individual section to be completed and how long it will take for the road to be built. This has been an issue since 2010. The lives of farmers and householders have been put on hold because they are not getting the information they need. I want a liaison officer to work directly with me in order that I can give people in Limerick succinct answers and timelines. The latter will allow them to a breather when a the route is decided.
I understand the frustrations regarding the time it takes from route selection to the final delivery of a project of scale. We have a lot of experience of that in my constituency in the context of some TII projects there. I do not have the power to do what the Deputy is asking, but I will raise the matter with the line Minister.
I want to come back to the question of the situation regarding Israel and the criminalisation of six human rights organisations. They are all vocal international groups. They have been to forums such as the EU, the UN and the International Criminal Court to push for accountability and justice. This move by Israel is absolutely abhorrent. The Minister cannot reply within a minute, but I want to ask if he would be prepared to discuss and debate this in the Dáil next week. We should have at least a two-hour debate on this matter, particularly as it relates to a serious move on the part of Israel to clamp down on human rights in Palestine. I do not think the Minister's previous response was strong enough.
The Deputy is correct. It is difficult for me to give a comprehensive response within this timeline. I have been vocal on this matter and I have raised it directly with Israeli Government Ministers. The EU has also been quite vocal on this issue in terms of expressing concern.
I have parliamentary questions on foreign affairs on Thursday next week and I would happily discuss it then. Perhaps that is the best way to get a more detailed answer.
This week, once again, a British Minister is threatening to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol of the withdrawal agreement. What efforts are being made by the Government with European partners to dissuade the British Government from making this move and to ensure that the British Government meets its commitments to international law? In addition, what efforts are being made to mitigate any lingering damage that this could cause to the Irish economy?
The short answer is that there is a lot going on, involving the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, myself and others. Obviously, we are working with EU counterparts and speaking directly to the Biden administration. I got a chance to speak to one of President Biden's most senior advisers this week and to members of Congress, such as Congressman Brendan Boyle and others, at COP26. However, the main focus is to try to encourage progress in the discussions between Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič and Lord Frost. They are meeting directly again tomorrow. I will meet Vice-President Šefčovič on Tuesday for lunch and, hopefully, will have an opportunity to have direct discussions with Lord Frost as well next week. Listening to what he said yesterday in the House of Lords, there is still some time to try to ensure that negotiations and partnership can work. We will continue to focus on those efforts and do everything we can to dissuade the British Government from triggering Article 16, which I believe would be a very serious, negative and retrograde step.
Ba mhaith liom aird an Aire a tharraingt ar scéal a foilsíodh an tseachtain seo caite ag Méabh Ní Thuathaláin ar tuairisc.ie. Deir an t-alt go bhfuil sé: "...deimhnithe ag Childline gur i mBéarla amháin a chuirtear a gcuid seirbhísí ar fáil in Éirinn i ndiaidh do Tuairisc.ie fiosrú a dhéanamh leo faoi chás inar dúradh le hoibrí deonach gan labhairt le páiste i nGaeilge". In no way do I wish to cast aspersions on Childline, its services, the extremely important work it does and the volunteers who work for it, but in this case a volunteer was instructed not to speak to a child in Irish. A child rang Childline, spoke Irish and by a stroke of luck somebody at the other end of the line was able to respond in the child's native language. It is unacceptable that a volunteer would be instructed not to respond to that child as Gaeilge, the child's native language. The Coiste na Gaeilge has heard stories from Tuismitheoirí na Gaeltachta about speech and language services and health services. It is unacceptable.
The Deputy kindly flagged that he was going to raise this issue. I am trying to get more detail about how best we can respond to it. Let us not forget that Childline is not a State agency. It is a service that gets some State funding, but it gets a lot of private funding as well. It is providing a very important service and we have to put some thought into how we can ensure that the service provided by Childline can also be provided for children who use Irish as their first and daily language. However, we must do that in a way that does not undermine Childline's core work and the number of calls it is taking and dealing with daily. The Deputy has raised a valid issue but we need some time to think about how we can respond appropriately, not undermine Childline but at the same time try to provide a service for those who seek a support service in Irish.
Page 77 of the programme for Government contains a commitment to introduce legislation to require publication of the gender pay gap in large companies. Last Monday, 8 November, was Equal Pay Day. On that day women effectively stopped earning relative to men because of our greater gender pay gap of 14.4%. I commend the campaign of WorkEqual to highlight the injustice. When will this legislation be progressed and what action is the Government taking to address the imbalance?
I seek the Minister's support to develop additional opportunities at Ireland West Airport Knock. I have in mind areas within the Minister's remit in his respective Departments such as developing an Air Corps presence for training purposes or utilising the airport to support the work of Irish Aid being undertaken overseas. If we are serious about increasing activity at regional airports in the wake of the pandemic, we should identify Departments with the potential to increase their operations at Knock and counter the dominance of Dublin Airport in the years before the pandemic. Utilising the regional airports through simple steps such as Irish Aid logistical support and packages being flown overseas from Knock would make a practical difference. There should also be greater use by the Air Corps of airports such as Knock for training missions. It would certainly be a strong show of support for our regions.
On those two suggestions, there is a strong historical link between the Air Corps and Knock in terms of using the airport's facilities for refuelling and conducting operations in the west of Ireland. When the Air Corps was central to the search and rescue, SAR, operations off the west coast, Knock was used as a strategic location. However, since the Air Corps withdrew from SAR operations in 2004 that activity has effectively ceased. Casement Aerodrome in Baldonnel remains the main logistical airport for the Air Corps now.
On the location and prepositioning of essential humanitarian supplies, Ireland does this in different parts of the world. Currently, we have three stockpiles of emergency supplies. One is in Ghana, which I visited seven or eight years ago, one is in Dubai and one is in Panama. They have to be strategically located close to where we expect that emergency crisis situations are likely to unfold. I will talk to the Deputy about other ways in which we might be able to help with what he is trying to do.
Each time the energy crisis is raised, and I have raised it with both the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, and the Tánaiste on numerous occasions, we are told that the fuel allowance is the solution. There is nothing else - no new actions or measures. I have repeatedly made the point that the fuel allowance is extremely limited. That is the problem. I have learned from a recent reply from the Minister for Social Protection to a parliamentary question that the increase in eligibility that was announced in the budget will only extend the fuel allowance possibly to an estimated 4,500 households. That does not become operational until January. The other fuel allowance measure announced with regard to jobseekers will benefit an estimated 3,300 households. There is support for an additional 7,800 households but the vast majority of them will not see that support until January. Given the scale of the energy crisis, this is not enough. I again ask that the Government consider a discretionary fund. This has been proposed by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which is spending millions of euro every year supporting families. We have to acknowledge that the energy crisis is an emergency and that more is needed than the fuel allowance.
In the recent budget there was an emphasis on trying to recognise the fact that there is fuel cost inflation and increased costs for families and homes. Independent assessments of the budget have shown that the Government is successfully compensating for that. We will keep this under review as we go through the winter in terms of the energy issues we discussed earlier.
I understand that 450 new staff will be employed in the Passport Office. I acknowledge the work of the staff in that office. It has been an extremely busy time for them, particularly in the last number of months. Some were re-tasked to assist the Department of Social Protection and other Departments during the height of the pandemic. I am sure I speak for all Deputies when I express gratitude for the work they have done and for assisting many members of the public. The Minister will be aware of the backlog of paper-based applications and of more complex applications. Indeed, there is a heap of applications by parents for children's first passports that need to be dealt with.
When does the Minister expect those new staff to come on stream? How long will it take to process the backlog, particularly, of paper-based applications?
The staff complement will reach approximately 900 by February, which is an increase of about 450 from a month ago. I know that many Deputies are getting requests for help from families to get passports turned around quickly. There are all sorts of reasons for that, nearly all linked to the Covid pandemic. We are dramatically ramping up the human resources in the Passport Office. We have worked with the OPW to get a lot of extra space. In the next week or so we will put up Perspex units between staff and their colleagues in the Passport Office to allow the full complement to be back to work, consistent with Covid restrictions. We set up a new call centre service for emergency cases for Oireachtas Members, which applies to everybody in this House. We are increasing the limit of no more than five cases per week up to 15 cases per week in response to concerns that have been expressed to me.
Most Members will welcome the increase in overseas development aid the Minister announced this week, which provides for a larger commitment to climate-mitigation measures in developing countries. While that is welcome and appropriate at this time, can he give a commitment that such additional funding in the ever-increasing pot of overseas development aid that Government is providing for will include those sums for future years to ensure countries such as those islands that identified themselves through impassioned speeches during COP26 will be supported by this country?
This week in Glasgow we announced an additional €4.2 million for small island developing states in the Caribbean and Pacific. This will go to supports for catastrophe insurance and climate adaptation funds. We have given this significant commitment of more than doubling our climate finance as part of overseas development aid funding by 2025. We will go from spending €93 million on climate finance currently to €225 million. I insisted that that be new money so that we are not diverting money away from other essential humanitarian assistance to fund that. That obviously needs to be taken into account in budgets in the coming years.
I again raise the ambulance service in the mid-west region, a matter I have had to raise on several occasions in the past 12 months. Unfortunately, crews in our area are constantly being deployed to other HSE areas. Deputies elsewhere say the same is happening in their HSE areas. It is evident there are not enough crews on the ground. The HSE is measuring performance on the response time of the crews. I ask the Minister to ask his Cabinet colleague, the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to get a measurement of the time it takes for paramedics to get to the patient, which is the accurate reflection of the performance and the service that is being given by the ambulance service in rural areas. At the moment, through no fault of the paramedics, the time taken to get to the patient is excessive.
This is not the first time this issue has been raised and the Deputy is right to raise it. I will, of course, ask my colleague, the Minister for Health, to come back directly to him on the matter.
I wish to raise the issue of housing owned by local authorities. Meath County Council owns approximately 3,500 houses while Westmeath County Council owns approximately 2,500. Every week we contact local authorities about doors, windows, heating, plumbing and electrical issues, and the response is that there is no maintenance grant for these works. The Government needs to put in place a maintenance grant specifically for repair and maintenance of local authority housing. I ask the Minister to consider that. This issue affects local authorities throughout the country.
Local authorities should make funding available for the upgrading of their housing stock. That is part of the management of that housing stock. I am not quite sure what the Deputy is referring to and whether he wants grant aid available for the tenants or for the local authorities. If there is a proposal for increased support for the local authority concerned, its senior management should make that case to the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage.
Farmers are under immense pressure at the moment. The prospect of having to reduce their herd could well mean the end for them. Many farmers in west Cork have come to me in recent months and I will give one farmer's example. This farmer farms with his wife and two young sons. They milk 75 cows on a fragmented and average-quality farm to the best of their ability. They have invested heavily in infrastructure to ensure more than adequate slurry storage and excellent infrastructure for the animals. This is spread using a trailing shoe only when they are allowed. They test the soil on the farm regularly and use fertiliser to match these results. They are good farmers, complying with every rule thrown at them. They have been advised that new rules will reduce their herd by 19%, but will allow low-yielding herds, predominantly larger herds, to increase by 11.5% on the same farm. If this goes ahead, it will cripple this farm family financially. I ask the Minister to assure this family that these new rules will not go ahead as proposed because if they do, they will wipe out dozens of hard-working farmers in west Cork and throughout the country.
The climate action plan is not basing the targets for agriculture on reducing herd size. We are asking farmers to work with us on many other actions and there will be schemes to support them in adapting to those new asks to keep them in business and profitable, but we are not looking to reduce the herd size as a target measure. In places like west Cork and elsewhere, there are challenges with the new nitrates action plan, which is currently under consultation, and the Minister is working closely on that.
I raise with him the issue of animal welfare. Yesterday, the DSPCA said we need to do far more on the issue of exporting puppies bred on puppy farms. Representatives of the North Dublin Cat Rescue have told me that we need to do far more to support voluntary organisations spaying feral cats. Will the Minister raise these matters with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine, as I also will?
It was actually a kitten rather than a puppy in order to get my four-year-old to present some flowers to His Holiness the Pope when he got off the plane. She got stage fright and I had to bribe her with a kitten. Approximately 40 animal shelters offered me kittens, one of which I took and is now called Spirit or the Holy Spirit in my house.
I have considerable sympathy for this issue. Both dogs in my house are rescue dogs. One of them, which I got through the DSPCA, was taken from the boot of a car in Dublin Port by the Garda. I am very familiar with this issue. I was the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine when we introduced the animal welfare legislation, which is substantial legislation. I will speak to the Minister on the issue. I believe he is very much of the same opinion as I am.
Does the Minister, as a former Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine and a former Minister with responsibility for trade, agree that Ireland, as a food exporter with 90% of our produce exported, must aim to be an early mover in respect of earning high margins from climate conscious consumers? Does he also agree there are significant opportunities for family farms to earn income not only from food production to the highest standard, but also from environmental services and climate services? Can the policy tools be created and delivered so that those pathways can be successfully travelled by farmers and we can have prosperous farming in a net-zero-emissions world?
We should have such a debate in this House. To respond quickly, the answer is "yes" but we must bring farmers with us on that journey. Anybody advocating to just leave farming alone and as it is, without changing anything, does not understand the kind of markets into which we sell our food around the world. The reason Ireland has a good reputation globally as a sustainable and high-quality, safe food producer is we try to see ahead in terms of what consumers will demand in future. Consumers are going to demand a food product they can consume knowing it has been produced in a way that takes the environment and climate into account. We must bring farmers with us on this journey through new income opportunities that will emerge in this new era of greening agriculture.
I return to the appointment by the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, of two of his close friends to taxpayer-funded positions. As has been said, this is not about qualifications; this is about process and there was no process here. To clarify the response of the Minister for Foreign Affairs to Deputy Doherty, is he committing that the Minister, Deputy Ryan, will come before the House to answer questions next week? Will the Minister tell his ministerial colleague that these types of acts of cronyism are simply not worth it and it is also not worth it in trying to evade answering genuine questions that must be put in this regard?
I do not accept this was an act of cronyism at all. This was a decision to put very well qualified people into very important roles. I am not committing the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to anything. He is well able to speak for himself.