Thursday, 25 November 2021
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
Property developers designed the shared equity loan scheme and lobbied for the scheme. How do we know this? They lobbied Sinn Féin as well and we told them to sling their hook. However, they found a listening ear in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. The Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform warned that property developers lobbied for the equity scheme because "it will increase prices". Officials in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage warned that the scheme would inflate house prices. The Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, told the housing committee that the shared equity scheme would lead to higher house prices and worsen affordability. In the last few minutes, the Central Bank has published its report and said that this scheme risks increasing pricing pressures. Forget about Sinn Féin and what we are saying. How can the Government push ahead with this scheme, which will pump up house prices, despite the warnings from the Central Bank, the ESRI, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the former Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform?
The objective here is to make home ownership a reality for more people, particularly young people. Over the next couple of years the Deputy will see many people who have been renting for far too long being able to get their feet on the housing ladder and to buy their first home through the shared equity scheme. For them, in many cases they will pay less on their mortgage than they are currently paying in rent. In the real world where large numbers of people are paying very high rents, they will be able to own a home through the shared equity scheme and to pay a mortgage payment that is less than the rent they are currently paying. That is where people are at, and that is the reality of this scheme on an individual level. The Deputy is going to see that happen and he will see how popular the scheme is as well once it is up and running.
However, this is not the only thing the Government is doing. The main thing we can do to reduce the cost of housing is increase supply. It is very encouraging to see that in the past 12 months over-----
The Central Bank said it is going to push up house prices, as have the ESRI, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Will the Tánaiste answer the question of why the Government is supporting a scheme that will push up house prices for young and old?
Like the Tánaiste and I am sure many other Deputies, I have experienced an escalation in my office over the last couple of weeks of people seeking clarity on when they will get their booster vaccines. A 68-year-old gentleman was on the telephone to me this morning. He is going through chemotherapy and he was seeking clarity on when he will get his booster. His consultant oncologist could not tell him, nor could his GP or the HSE vaccine line. He is not seeking to skip any queues; nobody was. He is just seeking clarity. It is fair that one of those three, if not all three, should have clarity as to when this individual, as well as many others, will receive their vaccines. I am interested in hearing the Tánaiste's thoughts on how that system is working.
I am afraid I cannot answer the Deputy's question on an individual basis, but I hope that gentleman gets his third dose of the vaccine as soon as possible. As of today, about 700,000 people have received their third dose of the Covid vaccine. We are now able to provide the third dose to between 160,000 and 200,000 people a week. Even at the peak of the vaccine programme, it was not possible to vaccinate everyone in one or two weeks. We can run at a capacity of approximately 250,000 a week. Over 1 million people should have received their third dose by early December, working through into the rest of December, January and February, but it will take time. I expect every adult will be offered a third dose and that is 4 million people. In the next couple of days, we also expect the European Medicines Agency, EMA, and the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, to approve vaccines for those aged five to 11.
I want to ask the Tánaiste about the shared equity scheme. On previous occasions when Governments have ignored expert advice from the Central Bank or the ESRI, especially on housing, it has not ended well. Why, on this occasion, does the Government feel it is okay to ignore the warnings from the ESRI and the Central Bank that this will inflate house prices? House prices have increased by 12% in the last year. A similar scheme in the UK led to a boom in house prices and a boom in profits for developers. Why, on this occasion, is the Government ignoring all this advice?
I have not yet seen the Central Bank report. I believe it was only published in the last hour or so and therefore I am loath to comment on it. We support the shared equity scheme, as one element of our housing policy, because it will help people who are currently renting to become homeowners for the first time. In most cases the mortgages they will pay will be less than the rent they are currently paying. Anything that enables people who are trapped paying very high rents to become homeowners for the first time, often paying a mortgage that is less than the rent they are paying, is a positive development in my view. The main thing we can do to reduce the cost of housing is to increase the supply. We need more supply and I appeal to the Social Democrats to stop objecting to new housing in this city and in other parts of Ireland.
The Government is nominally committed to the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD. In that regard I raise the plight of Accessible Community Transport Southside, which is a door-to-door transport service in the south Dublin area catering for 1,620 registered travel members, most of whom are wheelchair users or have severe mobility issues. That organisation is threatened with closure. It will run out of funding in two months' time. It did not get funding under the latest raft of stability Covid payments because less income is coming in. Shockingly, the members need to pay; they do not even get the use of the service for free. It is now threatened with closure and in two months' time, its funding will run out, leaving 1,600 wheelchair users and others with mobility issues without this vital service. I ask for the Government to look at this urgently and provide the funding it needs to retain the service.
In May 2017, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and I, as energy Minister, signed off on the new wind energy guidelines providing a fair and balanced planning system taking due regard of local communities and individual families within the vicinity of turbines. Even though these new standards were opposed by some vested interests, the improved guidelines would effectively mean that in line with World Health Organization standards, a turbine louder than a bird would be shut down. However, four and a half years later these standards have yet to be implemented.
In 2017, I made it crystal clear that the new guidelines must be in place in advance of the first renewable energy auctions. However, the Government has now commenced the second round of auctions just as we are being told in the House that the noise aspect of the revised guidelines is again under review in order to facilitate an expansion of wind energy. What exactly is going on?
I will need to ask the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to come back with a more comprehensive reply than I can give. The Government is very keen to proceed with the expansion of wind energy both onshore and offshore. It is what we need to help save our planet and to end our dependence on fossil fuels. It is also what we need to improve energy security and energy prices. If we use more electricity generated from wind energy, we will not be as dependent as we are on oil and gas, the price of which we cannot control. I know I am not giving the Deputy the answer to the question he deserves.
Yesterday, there was a protest here by the Irish Truckers and Haulage Association against Fuel Prices and SMEs. Last night, I was informed those involved are planning a second protest that will include farmers, SMEs throughout the country and other organisations coming to the capital to highlight the national emergency because of the inflated cost of fuel, which is interfering with every household in Ireland. These are front-line workers. This morning I emailed the Tánaiste's office, the Taoiseach's office and the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan's, office seeking an emergency meeting. I have also texted and sent WhatsApp messages to their phones for a meeting. I am looking for an emergency meeting to prevent this protest going ahead and look after the people. This is a national emergency and it needs to be dealt with like that.
The Government appreciates and understands the enormous impact that rising energy prices are having on people, whether it is households and families struggling with the bills or businesses. I engage with business all the time and the same business people whose main concern would have been finding staff or insurance costs a few weeks ago are now talking to me about the impact of high energy costs on them and, of course, on the haulage sector. The Government understands and appreciates the fear, difficulty and anxiety arising from high fuel prices.
I was recently contacted by the daughter of an 89-year-old constituent with advanced Alzheimer's who has recently lost any home care support they had. I am not the first Deputy to raise the issue of home care support and, more importantly, the lack of home care support. While there has been some investment in the area, the challenge is that the individual private companies do not have to take these hours and can avoid providing the support. There is an absolute lack of home carers. Will the Government invest in home care supports being delivered directly by the State, which would provide a much more flexible service? Will we finally remove home carers from the ineligible occupations list and recognise there is a critical skills deficit here and include them on the critical skills list?
I am not sure what the budget for home care is, but it has increased enormously in the last few years. I believe it has increased by 40% or 50% in the past few years and has increased under this Government. It would not make sense to take a purist ideological approach and say that it should only be provided by the State, which would mean we would actually have less home care available. We are trying to do both by investing in State-provided home care and by using private providers. To do it only through the private sector or only through the public sector would essentially tie one hand behind our backs, which would not be in the interest of patients or those who need home care. Therefore, we are investing in both State-provided home care and home care provided by private providers.
The Minister of State, Deputy English, is responsible for work permits and is engaging with the sector on it. If the criteria are met, we are willing to allow work permits for home care. That engagement is ongoing.
In recent weeks, 50 townlands in or near Lough Melvin, County Leitrim and 69 townlands near Templehouse in the Ox Mountains, County Sligo, were finally officially designated special areas of conservation, SACs.
That means there are approximately 37 different constraints on these lands. For example, they apply to any construction, alteration or removal of stone walls, hedgerows or fences; any widening or blocking of drains; any significant changes in livestock density or type; or any felling or planting of trees. Crucially, the carrying out of any of these activities without consent is an offence.
Initially there was reasonable compensation and up to 2008 we had the rural environment protection scheme, REPS. Austerity policies cut that and compensation under the green, low-carbon, agri-environment scheme, GLAS, and the agri-environment options scheme, AEOS, diminished. It is now virtually nothing. Will the Tánaiste reassure those affected in Sligo and Leitrim that they will be compensated for State-enforced costs?
I will certainly follow that up with the Minister. Part of my constituency is under a special area amenity order as well and I understand the difficulties that arise. People are generally happy to have their area designated but there are real consequences and costs for people. When the State imposes an order like that, it must be taken into account. I must speak to the line Minister about that.
The town of Killorglin is in mid-Kerry and is a vibrant town that serves a broad hinterland in the mid-Kerry area. It also has its challenges. One of the opportunities for the town now is the rural regeneration and development fund and Kerry County Council has applied for funding in Killorglin to try to develop the town centre. This is to try to give Killorglin an economic boost and an opportunity to provide jobs into future for people in the area, as well as a better place to live. It is really important that Killorglin is successful in the forthcoming round of rural regeneration and development funding. I have been liaising with the Minister for Rural and Community Development on the matter but I ask the Tánaiste to personally intervene and ensure the town can get the money it needs to secure its future.
The Department of Rural and Community Development is currently assessing applications submitted under category 2 of the rural regeneration and development fund. I know Deputy Griffin is very supportive of the application in respect of Killorglin's town centre. It is a project he raised with me and the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, before. I know the town centre well, having tried to cycle up that hill on more than one occasion on my visits to Kerry. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, is aware of the Deputy's advocacy for the project. The application process is now at an advanced stage so I cannot pre-empt any announcement. I know she hopes to make an announcement in the next couple of weeks and, I hope, before Christmas.
The Garda Representative Association, GRA, and the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, AGSI, are very concerned about plans to locate the headquarters of the Tipperary and Clare Garda divisions at Ennis. I know the Tánaiste has been told before about this but to locate the shared headquarters of such a large Garda division at the far end of its area makes no sense to members of the Garda and it will not work in their view. It is a two-hour journey from Carrick-on-Suir in south Tipperary to Ennis. As it would be a faster trip from south Tipperary to Dublin, if there is a wish to move the headquarters, it should be moved up there because there is a better road to Dublin.
The Taoiseach previously told the House a unit in his Department is overseeing policing reform. Has the Taoiseach raised the concerns that members of the Garda and of the public in Tipperary have about this? Will the Tánaiste impress upon the relevant people the need to have the matter addressed? I spoke with a local representative of the GRA who said that members want Tipperary to retain its own stand-alone headquarters. There is a concern about longer response times and reduced Garda presence in particular areas, given the distance from the proposed new divisional headquarters. Will the Tánaiste raise this with the Taoiseach?
I thank the Deputy. As far as I understand, this decision is for the Garda Commissioner rather than being a political or Government decision. In response to the request, I will certainly say to the Taoiseach that the Deputy raised the issue here. I will also mention it to the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee.
This week there was announcement in Cork by a company that it intends to carry out a €350 million development in the docklands area. Part of that development comprises a 130-bed rehabilitation hospital. We have been looking for an elective hospital in Cork for a number of years and we still have not identified a site for that hospital. This year, we have 200 fewer beds available in the Cork and Kerry region for hospital care as a result of the number of beds being reduced due to Covid-19. Is the Government and the Health Service Executive prepared to enter into negotiations with the private developer about identifying a site for this elective hospital? Will it design, build and finance it, with the State buying it back over 25 years? I am asking that this would be given priority.
I read about that development in the news the other day. It is really encouraging to see regeneration and redevelopment of the Cork docklands coming to life. I do not know enough about the development or who the developer is so I do not particularly want to get into discussions on whether the Government should engage with the developer in question. We are very keen to see elective hospitals up and running in Cork, Galway and Dublin as soon as possible. I am not taking an ideological approach to this at all and if it is the case that we can deliver it quicker through a private partnership than the traditional HSE route, I am open to that. It is really a matter for the Minister for Health.
As we approach Christmas, many people are eager to receive their third or booster dose of Covid-19 vaccine. Announcements from the NIAC around people aged 50 and over and those with underlying health conditions are welcome. Will the Tánaiste advise when the HSE will operationalise this advice? This week the European Medicines Agency recommended that everybody aged 40 and over should be offered a booster as soon as possible. Will the Government write to NIAC seeking urgent consideration of this most important advice? When might people who received the one-shot Janssen vaccination expect to receive their booster?
Just under 700,000 people have received their third dose and we expect that number to be over 1 million by early December. Under the current guidance from NIAC, 2.5 million people are now eligible for a third dose. We should bear in mind that even when the vaccine programme was at full tilt, the maximum number of people we could vaccinate in any week was approximately 250,000, so it will take a bit of time to get through the people already eligible for a third dose. It will be well into January or February before that happens.
NIAC is now examining groups that include children aged between five and 11, and we anticipate the European Medicines Agency will give a approval for that today, if it has not done so already. We have asked in particular for consideration of the group that received the single Janssen dose because there is evidence that immunity from that vaccine could fall as low as 20% or 30% within a few months. We are also asking that consideration be given to people under 50. As the Deputy rightly indicates, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC, now recommends everybody over 40 should receive a third dose.
The diesel rebate scheme is an important tool to protect and sustain hauliers and others in the transport sector but it is not fit for purpose and should be overhauled. There is a maximum of 7.5 cent allowed per litre when diesel is greater than €1.43 per litre. Diesel is now at €1.70, as the Tánaiste likely knows, so the limit should be reviewed. We are encouraging hauliers to move towards compressed natural gas and that is not covered under the scheme. Will the Tánaiste commit to urgently reviewing the diesel rebate scheme? I fear that if it is not done, people will be driven out of business or into poverty.
I acknowledge the extraordinary impact that rising fuel prices have had on hauliers. Of course, it has a wider impact in increasing transport costs for everybody in society and it is something the Government is very concerned about. It is largely out of our control because prices are driven by international factors. A diesel rebate scheme was introduced in 2013 and further improved in 2020. As the Deputy mentions, there is a cap of 7.5 cent per litre. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, in co-operation with the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is examining ways to assist that sector.
The co-operative societies Bill is on the long list of upcoming legislation and I understand the heads of Bill are being prepared. The intent of the Bill is to consolidate and improve legislation governing co-operatives. As the Tánaiste, is aware, the legislation is very old. I mention this in the context of developing community wind energy and it is a priority of the Government that community energy be a significant piece in the clean energy landscape in future. If we want this to work, the co-operatives legislation should be fit for purpose.
Will the Tánaiste provide an update on the legislation?
That legislation falls under my remit as the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. Work is being done on it. Unfortunately, we do not have a publication date yet for it. I agree with the Deputy's remarks on community energy. We will get much greater acceptance for an onshore wind or solar plant being provided in local communities if people have ownership of it or receive a dividend from it. I hope we can achieve that without having to put through that particular legislation. I agree that if we have community involvement and community gain in the ownership of new energy infrastructure, it would make a lot of sense.
I want to raise the issue of bullying in schools. Sadly, it is a feature of school life that students, teachers and parents face despite the Trojan efforts of pastoral teams, management and teachers in schools to address the scourge of bullying. Social media giants have played a huge part in inciting hate speech and have provided a continuous and relentless vehicle to allow bullying to continue on faceless accounts. TikTok, Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter have proven that self-regulation is no regulation.
As a Government, we are trying to introduce ground-breaking legislation to take charge of the platforms and ensure they operate differently here in Ireland, which would set a global precedent. Will the Tánaiste support the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, in bringing forward the online safety and media regulation Bill and ensure the 33 recommendations put forward by the joint Oireachtas committee are included, especially the individual complaint mechanisms and the take-down procedures, because every citizen in this country needs to be protected, particularly our young people?
I agree wholeheartedly. We have said for some time that the era of self-regulation is over, but we need to back that up with actions and legislation. A package of legislation is anticipated at European level. The Minister of State, Deputy Troy, is taking the lead for the Government on that. At a domestic level, the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, is taking the lead on online safety and digital legislation. That is a priority for her and she is keen to introduce it in the House as soon as possible so that there will be a proper complaints mechanism and, crucially, an online safety commissioner who can order platforms to take down harmful content. Much of this content is harmful.
I, too, want to raise the current and serious problem of the non-availability of PCR testing in my county of Wexford. Yesterday, there were no Covid-19 PCR tests available for 23 counties according to the Health Services Executive portal. We respect the scale of the problem, but surely one would have to deduce that the opening-up of society would logically correlate to an increase in Covid-19 cases in the population and, therefore, more PCR tests would be needed. What is being done about the lack of PCR walk-in or pop-up centres? When will PCR testing be available in County Wexford?
We have scaled up our testing capacity considerably. We can provide tests for about 30,000 people a day now. Unfortunately, with so many people experiencing respiratory symptoms, there is no system in any country that could deal with that number of people with symptoms looking for a test. As has been the case at other points of the pandemic, we now have to prioritise those with a GP referral and close contacts who have symptoms. The National Public Health Emergency Team is examining the testing criteria at present to see what further prioritisation we can carry out.
I wish to raise the same issue about pop-up test centres. Last night, I asked the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, if he would make a commitment to contact the HSE in Louth in relation to it providing a pop-up test centre for Drogheda and he said he would respond in his closing statement, but he did not. As the Tánaiste will probably know, Louth has the highest case numbers in the country and Drogheda has been particularly hard hit with one in 40 people testing positive in the last fortnight. I contacted the HSE at the start of the week looking for a simple pop-up PCR test centre and it has not responded yet, despite the fact that case numbers are going through the roof.
The surge was predicted and it is now here, but the infrastructure is not in place to deal with it. Case numbers are rising in Drogheda, where they are the highest in the country. Will the Government commit to providing a simple pop-up test centre to allow for the PCR tests to be done? No PCR tests were available yesterday and there are none available today or tomorrow.
As I said earlier, we scaled up testing to the capacity of about 30,00 a day. We brought the Defence Forces, the private sector and the public sector on board. However, there are limitations to capacity when it comes to testing, as is the case in any country of the world, and that is why we have to prioritise. We are prioritising those with GP referrals, those who are symptomatic close contacts of somebody who has been diagnoses with Covid. We have had to do this several times during the course of the pandemic. There comes a point when there are so many people with symptoms that it is not possible to test everyone within 24 hours, and that is why we have to prioritise.
There is an urgent need to revisit the requirement for physical distancing in our school transport system. We know that five- to 12-year-olds are now the group with the highest Covid incident rate. I have been contacted by a local private bus operator providing school transport services who has raised serious concern about the removal of physical distancing requirements. The operator carries out hundreds of school bus contracts daily and has seen an increasing number of bus drivers testing positive for Covid-19. Needless to say, operators are seeking the extension of physical distancing within our school bus transport system. I have contacted the Minister, Deputy Foley's Department directly on this matter, but I would appreciate if the Tánaiste could provide any information as to whether this will be revisited.
In line with the lifting of restrictions on public transport, and with effect from the return of schools following the October mid-term break, implementation commenced for post primary school transport services to resume operating at 100% capacity. With regard to post-primary special needs transport services, the Department will work with schools on a case-by-case basis where such services are required to continue operating at 50% capacity. All measures in relation to hygiene, preassigned seating, cleaning and the wearing of masks by post-primary students will remain subject to further review. As the Deputy will be aware, NPHET is meeting today and will give particular consideration to the very dramatic rise in cases among school children and will advise the Government on any further measures that may need to be taken.