Thursday, 18 November 2021
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
Fairness needs to be the heart of everything we do in we how we respond to the public health crisis. That is not where we are at; far from it. Now we have a situation where there will be free antigen tests for Deputies, Senators, Ministers, and staff in this House. However, front-line workers, including nurses, doctors, teachers, and those in retail, will have to dig deep and have to pay up. It is time to deliver free antigen tests for everybody in society. That is the fair thing to do.
Where is the fairness in what has happened to those working in the late-night sector? They were closed down with no warning. They had 48 hour-notice period and there was no consultation with them. That is absolutely heartbreaking. They were last to come back into employment and are the first go back into unemployment. This is happening at a time the Government is cutting the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. The comments from Ministers on this are absolutely insulting, telling those individuals to go and find another job. Can the Minister give a commitment to those people who will be out of work as a result of these decisions that the PUP will be restored to the original rate?
I have two points on that. First, the key recourse for those workers is the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, which was designed for exactly these circumstances when businesses are not able to operate as normal. Businesses are able to make sure that they can continue to pay the workers through that scheme. On the Deputy's
earlier point about antigen testing and the Oireachtas, we all know that that proposal came from the Houses of the Oireachtas Service. My understanding is that the Whips will be communication, I presume through the Business Committee, about how we cover the cost so that we are not treated in any way differently from any other section of our society. That would be appropriate so that we do not develop a "them and us" narrative. As I am sure every Member recognises, that is not where we want to be placed or the position we want to put ourselves into. The last thing I would say on that is I believe we do need to use antigen testing on a regular screening-type basis, to look for that unknown positive on someone who is not symptomatic. I have seen it work overseas. I think we need to develop it here. It has been held back because of health advice, but I believe we are coming to a resolution of that. It will start with our schools, as we discussed earlier this week in terms of an announcement on that.. We should use it in workplace settings - all using the same system.
I believe it is at the Green Party's insistence that there is a plan for a citizens' assembly on drugs in the lifetime of this Government. CityWide, the drug project and lobby group said earlier today at their conference that there has been a 225% increase in the number of drug deaths in Ireland over the past 25 years. We have the fourth-highest overdose rate in Europe. I know it is important to the Minister, his party and every political party in this House that we have a new approach to drug policy. There is a citizens’ assembly in the programme for Government. We in the Labour Party want to work with goodwill to establish that citizens’ assembly. Can the Minister commit to a time that citizens’ assembly will meet? It is crucial that we deal with the issue of drug deaths, and with the pain and suffering that has been caused by the drug industry in Ireland so that we can together find a new approach.
I agree with the Deputy that we should shift towards a health-centred, rather than criminal justice-centred, approach to the drugs problem we have in this country. I also agree that a citizens’ assembly would be good vehicle to consider some of the complicated issues around that. The real question, from the experience of previous citizens’ assemblies, is the question to be put to the assemblies, as well as how one structures the information that will inform the decisions that they need to make. There is a queue, I understand, of a large number of different issues looking for access to the citizens’ assembly model to help us in policy deliberation. I do not have the exact timelines for which issue comes where. However, I agree with the Deputy. This issue would be very well-suited and well-placed to be considered in the citizens’ assembly. I would support in whatever way I could for it to be delivered.
The only Member in this Chamber who has created a false binary choice about antigen testing is the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. On the radio yesterday, he said that the reason we cannot have free antigen tests in this country is that would be the cost of a nurse. That was a binary choice that the Government created. Some 637,000 people in this country are living in poverty. Every Christmas, they are fearful of their spending because it is cut close to the bone. Now the Minister is telling them that the Government has not got a subsidised scheme for antigen testing and he is creating false binaries. Today we find out, although the Minister, Deputy Ryan, may deny it, that Members will be getting antigen tests for free. That is ludicrous-----
Remember that. When you are asking other people to retract a statement, remember that false equivalence you made there.
People are living in poverty in this country. It is a pathetic excuse that we cannot have free antigen testing for everybody in society for the excuse that was given by Minister for Health yesterday. People are cut to the bone. They cannot be expected to pay for antigen testing. Imagine being a carer in a one-parent family in this country. We need free antigen testing because it keeps everybody safe. Until I see the scheme, I will not retract the statement that Members are getting antigen tests for free. We are certainly getting them before schools are getting them. It is pathetic.
My understanding is 500,000 antigen tests have been distributed across a range different sectors, which have been targeted because those sectors are at the greatest risk, including the likes of nursing homes-----
Agreed. We have been involved in opposition initially and then in government. I do not think I have ever heard throughout this whole process someone argue that the economics of us addressing Covid-19 is the biggest constraint. There has been no lack of willingness to provide funding either for the health system, or for the economic and social supports that need to put in place. Some tens of billions-----
Regarding the exact mechanisms of delivering antigen tests, the main concern has been a health issue, because of the risks that would come with false negatives, and a range of other issues with regard to that. I think they are being overcome. The exact mechanism for delivery and the exact cost is something that the Minister for Health has to decide upon-----
A protest took place last week outside the Glanmire Community College in Cork. As I understand it, the protest was organised by students who felt that racist attitudes were not being taken sufficiently seriously by the school authorities. I also understand that the protest took place following the suspension of two students who had vocalised this point of view. The protest was, I understand, both sizeable and multiracial. This episode raises important issues for the education system as a whole. Our school population now includes many young people from our new communities, who very rightly have zero tolerance for racism and for being treated as second-class citizens. It is important that the education system is not in any sense behind the curve in meeting this aspiration for equal treatment. I believe that racial sensitivity training across the entire education system would improve both the system and the student experience. What is the Minister’s opinion on introducing comprehensive training of this kind?
I agree with the Deputy. We need to be vigilant and to educate ourselves and each other. There should be no place in Irish society for racism. There is a new national action plan against racism, which is due to be published early next year. The proposal that the Deputy suggested might fit within that. I will forward it to the relevant Ministers so that they can look at it as one element of the plan they will put in place.
The Minister has previously indicated that from January, households and businesses that microgenerate energy at home from solar panels or wind turbines will be paid. I have three questions for him. What will be the rate per kw/h or tariff they will be paid? Who will decide what rate or tariff will be paid? When will we know all this?
A major development last week was the publication of Shaping our Electricity Future by EirGrid. A detailed two-year public consultation process leading into that came back with something that a lot of politicians here would absolutely understand, which is that microgeneration has to be the centre of the electricity future, shaping our new climate and energy future. The plan has been delayed. We were due to have it in the summer under European legislation. It has taken us longer than that but we are on the cusp of delivering, within weeks. This scheme will involve an ability to export surplus energy based on the market rate and systems up to around 50 kW will be able to get a support price. I cannot announce that rate on the floor of the House today but it will be announced shortly. Even larger projects, up to 1 MW, might allow a number of farms to come together and have another source of income. That goes back to what I was discussing with Deputy Michael Healy-Rae earlier. Businesses or communities could come together to put in a collective installation. Those are the three steps, namely, being able to export, getting a support price from microgeneration, and then going larger again. That will probably take slightly longer but we will introduce a regime to support microgeneration and the exact figures will be published in the coming weeks.
There has been a massive rise in fuel costs in the past 12 months alone, with petrol going from €1.20 to €1.70 a litre for various reasons. This is having a severe financial impact on families who have a child, or adult child, with disabilities as these parents drive their family members twice daily to and from day care centres and CoAction centres five days a week. For many it is a long distance to these centres. The parents of these children and adults are entitled to a school transport grant but receive the same grant when the fuel is €1.20 a litre as when it is €1.70. These are the most vulnerable people in our society. The outdated grant aid provided for transport for people with a disability must increase with the rising cost of fuel. I ask the Minister to do all he can for parents of children with disabilities and provide a fair transport grant to parents who travel many miles per day.
The Deputy is right that there has been a huge spike in oil and gas prices. We see that at the petrol pump and in the gas bills people are getting. However, it is expected that it will not be permanent. It is impossible to know exactly what the price of oil or gas will do but the leading experts say it is due to a variety of immediate issues which may lead to prices coming down as they unwind. In the meantime, it is a very significant issue. The Deputy raised the specific example of the school transport grant for parents of a child with a disability who have to drive. The Minister for Education is responsible for this area. I will pass this on to her to see if there is any flexibility within the scheme. It is an immediate issue and we will take whatever measures we can to help. I will certainly pass that on. I cannot promise anything but I would love to see what the Minister says in reply.
The Government has recommended that people work from home. That has plenty of environmental benefits as well as public health benefits, on top of rejuvenating towns and cities across our country. However, the rural broadband scheme is hopelessly behind and that is a disincentive for people as it makes it impossible for them to work from home. The Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, has been promising a Bill that would give ComReg powers to make existing broadband providers provide the services they are contracted to, but we have not seen it. The Minister is right. His Government has spent billions of euro on the Covid response but we have seen nothing on the actual responses that could make people live more safely. There has been nothing on antigen testing. No money has been spent on that even though the EU is providing tests and there are 1.5 million of them sitting in storage. There has been nothing with regard to ventilation in our schools, which I called for, along with many other Deputies, before the summer holidays. We have seen nothing on statutory sick pay, which would allow people who are sick to stay at home and we have seen nothing with regard to increased capacity in our healthcare system. When is the Government going to stop giving people advice and start facilitating people to live more safely?
The national broadband plan is one such facilitation. The Deputy is right that it has been delayed compared to what was originally expected because of Covid. There was a particular issue around issuing planning licences within local authorities. Both of those issues have been largely addressed. We still face significant issues in getting access to ducting and ducting that is not as high quality as was originally expected. There are real challenges but we have delivered 388 broadband connection points for rural communities so if people do not have a connection at home they have a local connection point where they can access high-speed WiFi.
The Deputy was looking for practical examples and these are real things that are in operation. Some 274,000 houses have been surveyed and build works are starting on 125,000. It is not fast enough and we all want to accelerate but we recognise that this is a particular moment in time. We are doing everything we can with Eir and National Broadband Ireland to try to help deliver that.
I refer to the provision of safe and segregated cycle lanes. I understand the Department is carrying out a review in this area. I welcome the rolling out of numerous greenways around the country. That is fantastic but we also have existing space on our road networks and many tertiary local roads that are under-utilised. These could be improved and utilised for better cycling facilities to link up those greenways and towns. I ask that the Department accelerates that process and tries to move that forward. Currently, what is seen as a liability by many local authorities could be a huge asset. The space that is there and the huge corridors on some regional roads and national secondary roads could very well be utilised to provide safe cycle lanes, to give everyone an opportunity to get from A to B in a much safer way.
Deputy Griffin is right. Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, has proven itself a good delivery agency. It delivers on budget and on time with good engineering expertise. That is why we have commissioned it to have specific responsibility for the roll-out of our national cycling network. The National Transport Authority, NTA, and city councils will have a key role in urban areas but in rural counties or counties outside cities it will be TII working in its regional design offices with local authorities. The skill and expertise in this process is not about doing it cheaply but about using clever engineering to get the maximum return from the €360 million annual budget. TII is centrally placed to do that in its regional design offices and it is going to have a critical role in enhancing local authorities' ability to get that design and build-out right.
I want to bring to the Minister's attention, and that of the Minister for Education, news that parents received last week in Trim, County Meath. They received letters stating that their children would not have a place at the local Boyne Community School next year. There were 362 applicants for just 192 places at the school, leaving 170 children without a placement. The population of Trim is growing every year and it is now over 12,000. Last year there was a farcical situation last year when twins applied for the school and only one was accepted. Parents are calling me to say they do not drive and cannot afford to send their children out of the local area. Now they are frantically calling other schools outside Trim for placements for their children, only to be told they are already at full capacity and they must be put on a waiting list. We have an education emergency in Trim. It will get worse unless the Minister for Education and her Department step up to help with an immediate resolution to the current situation. Nearly 200 children have no school to attend next year at the moment. We still have time. I ask the Minister to ask the Minister for Education to intervene in this matter.
I would be happy to. If the Deputy could forward the details on to me I will be happy to pass them on to the Minister for Education. I do not see how twins being divided could possibly make sense. We will look at the details.
As the Minister knows, 3,500 new homes are being planned for the Poolbeg Peninsula. We hear a lot of sound bites about the 15-minute city. That sounds great in theory but the reality is very different. As the Minister knows, you will not get up the Seán Moore Road in 15 minutes. Residents living in the new houses in Ringsend, as well as in homes in Irishtown and Sandymount, are already living in a carpark, with traffic almost stationary for large parts of the day. The Government wants to kick the Luas out for another ten or 20 years. If the Government is serious about integrated transport and reducing cars on the road, it needs to offer alternatives. How can the Minister stand over the delay of ten years, and possibly more, for the Poolbeg Luas?
Poolbeg is a critical development for our constituency and the city and is a model of high-quality urban living.
The transport strategy for the greater Dublin area, which was published last week, is in the consultation phase, so the timing of any particular project is open to variation. The first obligation on us is to build the BusConnects, DART+ and metro projects, all of which must start quickly. We need to get them through Government in the coming weeks and months, get them through planning and get them built. There are other Luas lines to Finglas as well as two new proposals in the south east to Bray and possibly beyond. The ordering of those will depend on a variety of issues. Funding is one issue and there are real funding constraints because we must also invest in Cork, Galway, Waterford and Limerick. Another issue is our engineering capability and our ability to deliver numerous projects at the same time. The key signal is that it is public transport first and light rail as a major part of that.
I am concerned at the delay in producing the national retrofitting plan or the retrofitting wave as it is called in Europe. Following the publication of the climate action plan, great interest has been aroused but the fact that people do not know the direction of travel on retrofitting is having a chilling effect. Applications for works are now being postponed. Can we see that retrofitting plan soon so that people can get started on what is a very important challenge for the next decade?
It is coming soon, within a number of weeks. It is critical because we want a lot of the money that we have saved, unwillingly in many ways, over the course of the pandemic to go into this. The provisions in the national retrofitting plan include a one-stop shop where people can get good advice, low-cost loans to assist those who have built up a deposit to bring down the cost of works, and the roll-out of apprenticeships through the work of the Minister, Deputy Harris, to make sure we have enough workers available. There are a variety of different aspects to the plan and it is almost ready to go. It is just a case of dotting the i's and crossing the t's and it will be published within a number of weeks.
One of the big issues we need to deal with is the development of infrastructure, particularly around our villages and small towns. One of my concerns relating to the Cork area is that Cork County Council is being asked to dezone land in certain areas. Irish Water is now dictating the future development of the county in that it is not going to develop sewage treatment facilities in certain towns and villages. How do we fast-track the tackling of this issue? Can Irish Water engage with private enterprise on the developing the necessary infrastructure? I am dealing with a situation where a State agency, namely, Inland Fisheries Ireland, IFI, objected to the building of a new school. I estimate this objection, which has now been dealt with by An Bord Pleanála, added approximately €2.5 million to the cost of building that school in real terms because of the delays that have occurred. This is not the way for a State agency to deal with matters. Instead of dealing with the Department of Education, IFI should have been engaging with Irish Water about the development of sewage treatment facilities.
Irish Water is best placed to decide on the allocation of funding and the timelines for its projects. I am very glad we have stopped pumping raw sewage into Cork Harbour, which was a huge problem. That had to be the first priority in the city. It was an immediate scandal that had to be addressed. Beyond that, sewage treatment is a real issue. Irish Water got significant additional funding in the national development plan.
In terms of the housing crisis we must get our transport and water infrastructure in place in advance of the housing. Transport and infrastructure-led development is the way we need to go. If there are housing solutions involved, I would have thought that would be high up on Irish Water's priority list.
On the issue of Inland Fisheries Ireland, we have a serious issue with water quality in this country. Within living memory, over the space of 40 years, this country has gone from having 500 pristine river systems down to 20. We have to stop that. We cannot be out trading as an Origin Green country when our water is polluted. The fisheries boards are critical in terms of providing warning signals that our water quality is not right.
I note today a report in a newspaper regarding the Companies Registration Office, CRO, filing deadline of 25 November and very unsatisfactory responses allegedly being given to those who have sought extensions to that deadline. I ask the Minister to raise with his Cabinet colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the possibility of extending the deadline beyond 25 November. More people will be working from home from now on and will not have the same access to the documents they need. A little bit of latitude, similar to what was shown last year, would be welcome. Effectively, regardless of the date of filing, companies were treated as if they had filed on time. I ask that the same system is put in place this year, given the Covid-related announcements in recent days. This is required and would be very much appreciated by many businesses.
The filing of annual returns has continued throughout the period of Covid-19. To date this year more than 215,000 annual returns have been filed. While a small number of practitioners are experiencing difficulties relating to annual returns for their clients, there does not appear to be a widespread issue of filing problems. The CRO has approximately 48,500 annual returns at various stages of processing. It has been an exceptional year due to a series of filing extensions which were granted in response to pressure on companies due to the pandemic. There were delays because of Covid, especially with the last filing extension which ended on 11 June, but the information given to me indicates the problem is not widespread.
There is a huge backlog in driving tests ranging from 66,000 up to 100,000 at times. Despite this, the Road Safety Authority, RSA, is intent on letting 34 driving testers go between now and next May. I ask the Minister to intervene to ensure they are not let go. Many of these testers were taken on under temporary contracts in 2017 and 2018. Those contracts have been renewed numerous times. Some of the testers are coming close to three years' service and, according to normal custom and practice, would be entitled to permanent contracts. I ask the Minister to intervene and ensure that is the case.
I absolutely accept, particularly for younger people, who have borne the brunt of the Covid-19 restrictions, that their ability to get a licence, get mobile and then get a job is critical. I will follow up on this and engage directly with the Road Safety Authority on it. We put a huge amount of additional testers in place to clear the backlog. I hear what the Deputy is saying on this. I will see if anything can be done and will report back to the Deputy directly.
I want to raise an issue facing those working in the night-time economy. We have now gone from well over 500,000 people claiming the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP down to 60,000. I really welcome that progress but I have been contacted by many constituents this week who own or who work in bars, pubs, restaurants and nightclubs. While they are glad they will be remaining open until midnight, their income will be reduced as a result. Those working in music and entertainment are seeing gigs being cancelled again. Their income will be hit and that is a fact. I support the Government's decision and agree that curtailing socialising is necessary right now, but we are also curtailing people's ability to earn an income and we need to support them financially. Will the Minister reassure those who work in the night-time economy that this Government will support them and that we have their backs?
We will support them. As I said earlier, the best mechanism for this is the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, because that gives a direct subsidy or support to employers to make sure they can continue paying their staff. I hope, more than anything else, these are temporary measures. Our vaccination rates show that we have thrown the book at it, and with further boosters coming, we will be able to live with Covid, avoid our hospital numbers going into the red territory and get back a semblance of normal life. The night-time economy is an important sector and an important part of our lives.
Following the publication of the final report from the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, the Government committed to establishing a restorative recognition scheme for survivors. The Government also committed to the provision of a form of enhanced medical card. Will the Minister indicate when that card will be issued?
I wish to raise the issue of the backlog of almost 4,000 children and young people waiting on assessment of needs. We were informed that the backlog increased from 500 in the summer to almost 4,000 now. Regarding children's disability network teams, I am told that children all over the country are not receiving therapies. Parents are being given courses and being told to assist their child at home. Parents are not qualified therapists, especially in speech and language and other disciplines. When will the children's disability network teams be properly resourced and staffed?
I will respond to Deputy Buckley's question. As he knows, we announced a scheme to provide financial payments to 34,000 former residents and enhanced medical cards to 19,000 former residents at an overall cost of €800 million. I am acutely conscious of the importance of getting these payments and the enhanced medical cards to survivors, many of whom are elderly. Because the scheme is so large, it requires legislation. I will work as hard as I can with members of the Opposition to get the legislation passed as quickly as possible. I also must be realistic. I believe it will be the latter part of next year by the time the scheme is up and running, but I will do everything I can to get this done as quickly as possible. Once the applications open, we will prioritise applications from the most elderly and vulnerable survivors.
That concludes Questions on Promised Legislation. With the discretion of the House, I will make a brief comment on the earlier, rather unseemly, situation around antigen testing by bringing the House up to speed with what has happened today. We had a meeting of the Business Committee at 11 o'clock today, as we always do. The service brought a proposal to the Business Committee on antigen testing. The reason it brought it is that last week we had nine cases in the Houses of the Oireachtas. That was four times the previous incidence of infection and that included one likely on-site transmission. On a sitting day we have, on average, 800 people circulating in this building through narrow corridors and tight circulation areas. Going on the national statistics, that means there are about eight people at any one time on a sitting day moving around here who have Covid but are not symptomatic, so the service brought a proposal to introduce antigen testing.
We are employers here of more than 1,200 people, who use this as their base. The matter was discussed by the Business Committee. In terms of the staffing, the view was that the antigen tests should be made available from existing House resources to staff members free of charge. The suggested proposal under discussion was that Members of the House should be encouraged to have antigen tests, to acquire the test packs outside the House or, if they require them here, that they should pay for them. That is the situation. I would be grateful if Deputy Ó Cathasaigh could confirm that.
I ask you to forgive me for reading from my phone, but this message was sent while we were in the Chamber, a Cheann Comhairle:
Further to the notification by the Oireachtas service at the Business Committee today of providing free antigen tests to the parliamentary community, we feel it is necessary to ensure that parties and groups would make a full contribution to the cost of these tests if they are used by Members or their staff. We would ask that the arrangements be put in place to ensure that this can be facilitated by the three parties undersigned.
Those are the three Government parties. The letter has been signed by the Chief Whip, Deputy Jack Chambers, Deputy Griffin and me, and has been received by Members.
That is very helpful. I thank Deputy Ó Cathasaigh. If it is the view of the Members that we should not make this facility available to our 1,200 staff, and we should not encourage Members to buy antigen tests here – they can do what they like in their own chemists or local outlets – and if they do not want anything to do with antigen testing conducted on the premises here, if they let us know, then the initiative can be halted. I hope that is clear.