Wednesday, 17 November 2021
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
Despite the widespread rejection of the report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and Certain Related Matters, the Government has based its redress scheme on its findings. Survivors and families have been consistent in the demand for inclusive redress, redress that recognises the human rights abuse of forced family separation. The Government has ignored the mothers and their children on both fronts. It is deeply hurtful that the Government has created a hierarchy of survivors, taking the view that some mothers and their children suffered less than others. The Government delivered this scheme knowing there are women in the courts this very week seeking to right the wrongs of the commission’s report but, rather than hear those voices, the Government has doubled down on the failures of the commission. How does the Taoiseach justify this? If the Government will not listen to the voices of survivors, Sinn Féin and others in opposition will do so and we will use our time in the Dáil next week to give voice to them.
First, the Deputy made a statement that is simply not true in terms of the commission. The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and the Government have gone well beyond the recommendations of the commission in respect of the payment scheme. Surely the Deputy has to acknowledge that. Not everybody will be satisfied with the entirety of the scheme but it has gone well beyond the commission.
Indeed, the Minister's recommendations, which were accepted by Government, go beyond the recommendations of interdepartmental group as well. All mothers will receive a payment in respect of what happened. There is also a 22-point action-----
I am responding to Deputy McDonald. There is an action plan containing 22 actions. From my exchange and engagement with people down through the years, I understand that the most important action is access to information and tracing. We published legislation, which is groundbreaking legislation. No other Government before this Government has produced legislation of this groundbreaking nature.
No, it is an important point. The legislation has been at the pre-legislative scrutiny stage for six months, then the Government gets attacked for delaying. The suggestion and implication there was that we deliberately produced the scheme yesterday. I hope the Deputy is not suggesting that. Last week, we were being asked when the scheme would be published.
I have a genuine question relating to boosters for the over 60s, specifically, those aged 60 to 69. When they got the AstraZeneca vaccine, there was a delay whereby younger cohorts were fully vaccinated long in advance of the majority of those aged 60 to 69. I understand that the National Immunisation Advisory Committee, NIAC, provides the advice on this issue and I am not disputing that. I am not disputing the advice on the five-month gap but the last time around, the gap of three months between doses was reduced to five weeks by the end of the programme. Will the Taoiseach ask NIAC to look at this issue on a regular basis, because evidence comes in and things change? It is a fact that those aged 60 to 69 are being treated differently. People younger than them are going to be jumping ahead of them for booster vaccines. We need to have fairness in this.
-----to review this. NIAC provides the advice. There is a balance here, and I must be honest with everyone in the House. People ask if the Government will do this or that. The Government acts on the advice of NIAC. I do not want to put the committee under the spotlight unduly either, which really is the implication of what the question is about.
I am answering it. My point is that the committee ultimately has to answer for any advice that it gives about the administration of a vaccine to people. Roughly 93% of people took up the first vaccines, which in many ways is a vote of confidence in the system that we have.
Rather than feigning outrage at opportune times, I have tried to be consistent in my engagement with the Taoiseach on the reopening of schools. On five occasions since September, I have used this session to ask for stronger mitigation measures in our schools. I ask again where the air filtration devices and the CO2 monitors in every classroom are, as per the recommendation of the joint committee in January 2020. Where are the antigen tests that were recommended in July 2021 by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC? Why has contact tracing not been reintroduced since it was removed disastrously on 27 September this year? Rather than answering those questions, today, the Minister for Education went on national radio and moralised about birthday parties and play dates. We need effective mitigation measures and we need information clearly communicated. That needs to happen immediately to keep our schools open and to keep them safe.
We do, and we need to accept public health advice on keeping our schools open. The constant thread and consistency from Government in keeping our schools open is accept the public health advice. It has worked, actually. The public health advice was received in respect of contact tracing. It has not been disastrous either way.
I put it to the Deputy that he cannot have it both ways. His party took the correct approach from the outset of the pandemic. I agreed with his party leader, Deputy Shortall, who said, at the time, that we must be guided by public health advice, no matter what, because if we jettison that, we will end up with a very inappropriate and wrong response to the pandemic. If we look at countries around the world that jettisoned public health advice, we can see where they ended up in terms of mortality rates and the disasters that followed. We may have our tensions, people may give out, and there is a need for robust debate. I understand all of that. However, suffice it to say, we have been guided by very good public health advice from the HSE in respect of schools and we will adjust and change as appropriate. There will be an antigen programme for schools in a selected and targeted way.
I want to raise an issue relating to the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. The guidelines announced by the Government yesterday will have an knock-on effect, particularly for the entertainment industry. The PUP has been a lifeline for many workers over the past 18 months. Will the Government review the issue in respect of those who cannot get access to the PUP because of guidelines announced by the Government yesterday?
To be honest, the number of PUP recipients has been coming down steadily as we have reopened the economy. The number of recipients has gone from somewhere well over half a million down to 60,000. That has been the direction of travel, because we have reopened so many sectors of the economy.
As they say, you run with the hare and you hunt with the hound. It was Deputy Kenny's question, to be fair. It is our view, and there is consistent feedback from Members and people across society, that one of the significant difficulties employers have faced since the economy reopened is getting staff. There is a balance somewhere between the two. The number of recipients of PUP has come way down. We will continue to support people and the sectors that are hit, as we have done from the beginning in terms of sectors that our decisions really do impact on. We acknowledge that.
This is the fourth time that I have raised the need for a whole-time equivalent dietician to be allocated to County Wexford since December 2020. The current allocation is a 0.5 whole-time equivalent, but there is a concerning exponential rise in the diagnosis of anorexia in the teenage population. It is fundamental to managing mental health that the clinical staffing requirement is matched with the growing needs in society. That is why it is so concerning that there has been such an increase in anorexia diagnoses. County Wexford needs one whole-time equivalent dietician. The vacancy cannot be filled. In April, the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, said that it was a funded position, but there had been no response to the advertisement for the post. The Tánaiste told me in July that the post had been advertised, but nobody was willing to take up the position. I believe it is because it is a 0.5 whole-time equivalent post. Can the Taoiseach tell the parents and children of Wexford when they will receive the help required?
I accept the sincerity of the Deputy's presentation. I value her raising the issue, even though the recruitment of staff is an operational issue for the HSE. The Deputy has suggested because the post is part time, it is not getting the attention from people who could fill that position. I will engage with the HSE on that. The recruitment processes need to be speeded up, accelerated and there needs to be greater innovation in recruiting people. The HSE has recruited approximately 11,000 people in the period between the latter part of 2020 and now. That is a lot of people who have been recruited. A bit of creativity could be used here, through the creation of a whole-time equivalent post. It is funded, so just get on with it and get it done in some shape or form.
The rural social scheme is a very important part of rural communities all along the western seaboard and indeed, in many counties, including Cavan and Monaghan. To get on the scheme, applicants have to qualify for farm assist payments. Those on the scheme get a top-up payment for doing very valuable work in their communities. The payment is perhaps €20 or something very small. It is of great value to the communities. A six-year cap has been in place since 2017, so individuals can only be part of the scheme for six years. I ask that when people reach 60 years of age, or 61 or 62, they be allowed to finish out their time on the scheme until they reach pensionable age
Throughout the country they work on graveyards, green areas and approaches to villages.
The Ceann Comhairle is being too strict. I was really looking forward to a lyrical list of those beautiful Kerry names dripping off the tongue. I agree with the Deputy. I will look at it. It is a very fair point. Deputy Ó Cuív was instrumental in introducing the rural social scheme. It is a valuable scheme. It does a lot of valuable work throughout the country. It is very useful and developmental for the people involved. I will speak to the relevant Ministers to see whether we can look at the specific issue the Deputy has raised with regard to the age cap. I did that previously when I was at the Department with responsibility for enterprise with regard to community employment schemes. I am sympathetic to what the Deputy has asked, but I have to go through the details.
I have been asked by a number of people to raise the issue of the shortage of neurology nurse specialists, particularly in St. James's Hospital. They are campaigning to increase by 100 the number of nurses nationally. They say St. James's Hospital has only four but it should have 14 to deal with the catchment area. Will the Taoiseach look into this, try to find out what the problem is and campaign to get the nurses?
I will certainly examine the issue. Advances have been made in nursing through the nurse education and degree programme we introduced many years ago and through advanced practitioner courses. It is very clear in many specialties that nurse-led teams do enormously effective work, from gynaecology to children. In neurology, which historically has been an underfunded area, there is much to commend in what the Deputy said.
During July and August, we can get from one side to the other of any town or city in Ireland without any great traffic congestion. This is the case in counties Cork and Clare and any place we can think of. This is largely due to schools being closed and the 200 or 300 cars doing the school drop-off not being on the road each morning. We have had an overhaul of school transportation but there are still many archaic rules, largely relating to distance from the nearest school, which prohibit and deny many people the opportunity to take bus transport to the local school. I ask the Taoiseach not to overhaul it but to tear it apart and start again using Covid as a zero starting point. Parents from Quin, Tulla, Sixmilebridge and all over the county have been on to me. Their children have been accepted in schools for September 2022 and they are already fraught with worry not knowing whether there will be a school bus service. We could hugely alleviate traffic problems. Not every town or city needs a motorway but a school bus taking 20 or 30 cars off the road would make a massive difference to many villages.
I have raised this issue myself with the Minister for Education and others. It is an easy issue to raise but it will be more challenging to fulfil. I would not start from Covid; I would start from climate change. With regard to tearing up the rule book, the way we should approach school transport into the future is through the prism of climate change. The Deputy is correct that if we want people out of cars and less frequent car trips, providing more buses and getting children to school on them would make a contribution to the environment. We could also get rid of a lot of the anomalies and endless arguments about catchment areas. This is easier said than done. A review is under way. I would like it to be informed by the climate change agenda in particular. It is absolutely applicable to that.
I would like to raise reform of the coroner service nationally. I must give credit to Deputies Gould and Ó Laoghaire, who have been raising this issue consistently. In 2000, a full comprehensive review was published by the Department of Justice, which recommended radical reform. Recent research by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties has shown this reform simply has not happened. The system is under-resourced, regionally disjointed and, ultimately, ill-equipped to provide the justice and compassion needed by many bereaved families who find themselves using the service. The ultimate consequence is a failure to vindicate the rights of bereaved families. We have a report from 2000 calling for radical reform. When will the report be introduced?
I thank the Deputy for raising what is a very important issue. I will engage with the Minister for Justice on this with regard to the reforms that are required and I will revert to the Deputy.
Page 95 of the programme for Government states the Government will continue to work with the Garda on tackling and interrupting organised crime. I want to ask about a tweet sent out over the weekend by Fianna Fáil Deputy, Barry Cowen, that eulogised the man held responsible by many people for flooding Dublin with heroin in the 1980s. The tweet stated, "Reminded of Larry Dunne famously remarking 'if you think we're bad, wait till you see what's coming after us'". The heroin epidemic wiped out large parts of Dublin and whole generations of young people in the 1980s. Many grandmothers were left rearing their grandchildren because their own children were wiped out by this scourge. Does the Taoiseach stand over the comments made by Deputy Barry Cowen? How does he feel about Fianna Fáil being likened to an organised crime gang with him as the leader? Will he instruct Deputy Cowen to do a U-turn on this matter?
Context is everything. I do not think anyone is glorifying organised crime. It is not on that the Deputy has suggested Deputy Cowen or anybody was glorifying organised crime. That is just not on. For whatever cheap political points the Deputy wants to score, it is just not on to be suggesting that. We could all throw things back with regard to glorifying criminality, murder and mayhem. The Deputy should look into his own cupboard and be a bit more-----
Drug crime is one of the worst horrors to visit an individual, community or society. We have to deal with drug abuse, drug trafficking and criminality around drugs in a multidimensional way, first, with regard to those who suffer from addiction with a healthcare-based approach. With regard to criminals we should take a very strong justice approach involving the Special Criminal Court and every arm at the disposal of the State to put those people behind bars. Criminals should be put behind bars. People who peddle drugs should be put behind bars.
I did not get an opportunity yesterday to contribute to the debate on the National Ambulance Service. I want to take this opportunity to address the urgent need for extra ambulances and ambulance staff in the west Cork area. The Taoiseach knows well the unique geography of west Cork and that it can take anything up to three hours to travel from Cork University Hospital to Castletownbere. It is unique and it needs extra ambulances and extra ambulance staff. There is a €200 million allocation in the budget for ambulances in 2022. We need to see this translated into extra ambulances and extra ambulance staff. The ambulance staff themselves are concerned about the lack of provision. This should include extra support for the Irish Community Air Ambulance service. This is a fantastic service, which has faster response times, faster transport of patients from the incident to the hospital and better outcomes. It needs to be supported and be part of the solution for an area such as west Cork.
I accept the points the Deputy has made on the need for widespread coverage of the National Ambulance Service. Other Deputies have raised this in the House. The facts of the matter are, as the Deputy has said, overall investment is now €200 million. This is up from €170 million in 2019. Approximately 2,000 people are employed in the National Ambulance Service, which is up 16% in the past five years. That said, issues have been raised with regard to geographic cover. HIQA and others have analysed this. People like the model we have. Experts believe the model we have gives the optimal outcomes. That said, the feedback from the regions is that there are many challenges with the model in terms of wait times, particularly in less acute cases and other cases people have raised in the House. There is a need to review this and we will engage with the Minister.
This morning on radio, the Minister for Education suggested to parents that they should not organise play dates or birthday parties. This is in important information to get to parents. The reaction in my emails and phone calls so far is about the question of schools more broadly. There is a concern about where this will go. Parents are seriously concerned. They are already juggling so much. Will the Taoiseach take this opportunity to set out the information he has to provide certainty or clarity? Stopping birthday parties and play dates is a natural thing to do now. How parents are interpreting this is that Covid is going in a direction that may threaten schools.
Can the Taoiseach set out the rationale behind the distinction between those things for parents as it would be helpful?
The overall public health message is to reduce socialisation more generally in society and not in any specific way. We can all give instances when one is questioned about hundreds of different types of events and so on. The bottom line from the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, and NPHET is to reduce socialisation. Some hundreds of thousands of people under the modelling could get Covid-19 in the next month, in December, but they have not got it yet, so it can be avoided. If we can avoid substantial numbers getting Covid-19 in December we will make huge progress.
On schools, the consistent messaging in public health is that schools are safe in respect of Covid-19. We have also been told by public health that respiratory syncytial virus, RSV, and non-Covid-19 respiratory illnesses have been the biggest challenge for paediatric services this year and I gave figures on that yesterday but it does not get the same public attention at all.
On page 47 of the programme for Government, it acknowledges that even before the impact of Covid-19 on our health service, significant additional capacity was required across all aspects of care. It detailed the Government’s plans to address these capacity issues.
Yesterday in my local hospital, University Hospital Limerick, UHL, 95 people were on trolleys, which is an absolute scandal. This is the highest number ever in any hospital since these figures were collated. Some 70 people are on trolleys today. This is almost 900 people already in November lingering on trolleys. UHL is the hospital in the constituency with the highest number of people being treated on trolleys. The patients and staff deserve way better than they are getting. The hospital is awaiting the construction of a new 96 bed unit and this needs to be expedited but we are being advised that it will take at least 20 months to complete.
I ask the Taoiseach please not to tell me that money is available when the management and staff of UHL tell me themselves that it is not. Will the Taoiseach commit to cutting through the red tape to get this project approved under the capital approval process?
Yes, Deputy, and I was not able to pick up everything that he said. We want to get extra bed capacity into Limerick and I will engage with the HSE in respect of any blockages. It will have to be built or developed which will obviously take time.
We are giving €1.5 million to all the local authorities every year to employ vacant housing officers, most of whom are part-time. In fact the vacant housing position is an add-on and these are not full-time dedicated staff members. Does the Taoiseach think they should be full-time dedicated staff members and what mechanism will the Government put in place to ensure that this happens? Would he also agree that large counties like Cork should have more than one vacant housing officer? Does he agree it is a very important role and there is huge potential to bring on further housing stock if this is done properly, like they have done in Waterford?
My view is that the entire senior management should be concerned about voids and vacant housing. Is that the issue? Fine, but it is much more than just having a vacant housing officer. The entire corporation and local council should be seized with the need to get houses back into service as quickly as they are vacated. That is why we provided substantial funding in the July stimulus. We have brought 6,000 houses back into play that were void in the 18 months since we have been in office. These are the facts and I am very impatient with any houses that are left idle given the housing crisis that we have. The county manager, and not just the vacant housing officer - I know they are - should be seized by any vacancies to ensure that their systems are such that we do not tolerate that, that there is a complete intolerance of having houses idle when people need them.
Media reports at the weekend indicated that the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, has received an independent report that addresses the importation of peat into this country. The media reports indicate what we all know, that it is environmental, economic and ethical madness to be importing peat into this country. Has the Minister of State received this independent report and if he has when are the recommendations going to be implemented?
I am happy to take that question from the Deputy. The report from the horticultural peat working group has been sent to me and I have sent it on to the relevant Ministers. A number of recommendations will go to Government for consideration. I will not get into the detail of these here today but I welcome the work that has been put into this and it does offer some possible solutions. As I said previously, there is no easy answer to this. There is a dual consent process in place in Ireland and the measures that are outlined in the report are not in my control but are in the control of other Departments and it is up to the Government, collectively, to seek a solution that will work for the industry in Ireland and for the horticultural sector, which is very important and which we all value and support. Certainly, we have to give consideration to the phasing out of horticultural peat in retail and other sectors. I will not go into the detail of the report but there are important findings in there.
I raise the same issue. The scenes of thousands of tonnes of peat being unloaded at Irish docks having travelled the entire way from Latvia rightly caused consternation. This is the result of what is essentially a ban on the harvesting of peat in this country. That ban, if it is not addressed, could cost thousands of jobs in the horticultural and mushroom industries. The Minister of State appointed a working group which provided him with a report four weeks ago. The Minister of State has indicated that this is cross -departmental. Will the Taoiseach ensure first that this report is published so that, for example, the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine can examine it? Crucially then, if it recommends legislative proposals, will the Taoiseach ensure that each relevant Minister brings that recommendation forward so that we can stop the madness of importing peat and that we can also protect the thousands of jobs that are at stake?
Deputy Carthy has omitted to point to the fact that this went the whole way to the highest court of the land, which took decisions which resulted in the situation that we are in now. Court decisions and litigation have led us to this unsatisfactory situation in respect of the importation of peat. I accept that it does not make any sense on any yardstick that peat should be imported. I have spoken to all the Ministers involved and there will be engagement between all of us, which I will ensure as Taoiseach, and that there is an outcome to this. I am particularly concerned about the horticultural and the mushroom industry, in particular, which is a good industry that employs many people and exports to the UK and other markets.
Antigen tests have been available to be procured through the EU joint procurement agreement of last November. Since then I have been calling for that to be availed of. I have raised the issue several times with both the Tánaiste, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health. There was a Professor Ferguson report at the end of March, beginning of April recommending their use. The Taoiseach and various members of his Government pay lip service to antigen testing. Can the Taoiseach explain why there are 1.5 million antigen tests in storage with the HSE at the moment instead of being out there being used in the community to curtail transmission of Covid-19?
They are issued free antigen tests. There will be another 300,000 or 400,000 people, potentially, over the next while who will develop Covid-19 and there will be a whole range of close contacts. The issue is that we have expanded its use in many different sectors including through close contacts, as advised by public health. The Deputy is well aware that public health has over time had a very-----
The medics are of the view that antigen testing has a role but it is not the silver bullet role that some people will advocate. We have made progress on this and we need to make more.
I am glad that the Minister of health, Deputy Donnelly, will not oppose the Sinn Féin motion. The Taoiseach recently told me that the current ambulance system is the optimal one. Why am I, then, being repeatedly told that the system is broken? The automated computer system wrongly prioritises need. Take the case of a two-year-old child with a respiratory illness whose call was overridden for a person with a chest infection because the system logged it as such. The Minister, Deputy Donnelly, talks about 200 people doing the degree. This is not enough as only 80 people will come out at the end of this year with that degree-----
On 19 October I asked the Taoiseach why the increase in the means test for fuel allowance was being delayed until next January.
The Taoiseach told me that the Government decision was to implement the decisions with immediate effect on budget night. I then got a letter from the Minister, dated 15 November, telling me that, in fact, the decision is that the means test will not be increased until next January. Will the Taoiseach either correct the record of the Dáil or, preferably, correct the wrong decision to delay the increase in the means test? People who need the fuel allowance now will have to wait until January.
In response to Deputy Browne, first of all the degree programme is vital. It has been the most transformative thing we did in terms of professionalising the EMT profession, and I was involved in it. The professionalisation of the sector is the most effective thing we have done in terms of pre-emergency care. As I said, I have heard what people have said in terms of individual examples which are constantly quoted. I cannot delve into every individual case which may potentially point up a systemic issue that the ambulance service needs to consider. We will engage with the ambulance service.
On Deputy Murphy's point, it was my understanding that measures had been taken and the vast majority of social protection measures were introduced on budget night. I will pursue the latter point he raised.