Wednesday, 1 December 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 to 18, inclusive, together.
The economic recovery plan was published on 1 June, and is helping to drive a sustainable recovery in economic activity and employment, while also investing in the transition towards a decarbonised and digital economy. The plan is based on four key pillars: helping people back into work; rebuilding sustainable enterprise; a balanced and inclusive recovery; and ensuring sustainable public finances. Good progress has been made in all these areas, with very strong increases in employment over recent months, as well as a strong performance of the public finances.
Other significant milestones achieved under the plan, notwithstanding ongoing challenges around Covid-19, include implementation of the Pathways to Work strategy, which provides training, support and activation to help people back into work; the summer economic statement; finalisation of the Housing For All strategy with record levels of investment in social and affordable housing: the publication of the revised national development plan, allocating more than €165 billion for public investment over the decade; and the new Climate Action Plan 2021, which sets out ambitious targets and measures across all sectors of the economy.
Other significant developments include a new Al strategy which was launched in July, while work is also well-advanced on a new national strategy for research and innovation.
In all of these actions under the plan, the focus is on a recovery that aligns with the Government's ambitious green and digital objectives.
Another key deliverable under the economic recovery plan is a well-being framework for Ireland. This is being jointly sponsored by my Department and the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and Finance. The first report on this was approved by Government and published in July. It will help us to consider, understand and measure Ireland's progress more holistically through the recovery and beyond.
A follow-up phase of consultation and engagement on the initial framework is currently under way. This public conversation on the well-being initiative was launched on 26 October to create awareness, gain feedback on the framework and get a broader sense of people's priorities. Key elements of this conversation include an online survey targeting a wide audience; thematic workshops; and a large online stakeholder event, on 17 November, to which I contributed. A Government well-being portal has also been developed alongside the CSO's interactive dashboard. A follow-up report will be submitted to Government in early 2022, informed by this public conversation and broader ongoing work. This second report will also identify steps for fully embedding the framework within the policy-making process.
The well-being framework is a positive initiative from the Government, bringing focus on overall quality of life, community connections, equality and mental health, for example. While the initial report was published in recent months, I am asking for a progress report on the overall framework.
How would this overall framework reflect on the very worrying situation on accessing education in Ballincollig, where the newly established Le Chéile school is in temporary accommodation and is looking for a permanent home, the same as Gaelscoil an Chaisleáin? Planning permission was recently refused to Le Chéile school. There is a great need for ASD education in Ballincollig and the school was offering the best opportunity for many people on that. The Taoiseach can imagine the level of anxiety locally when that option was closed off with the refusal. There is a need to advance permanent homes and to give people equal access to education in Ballincollig. Can the Taoiseach outline how advanced the well-being framework is? Can it bring extra energy and focus to ensure there is equal access to education for people in Ballincollig?
There has been a lot of talk from the Government about recognising the work of essential workers during the pandemic, that things will be different and that, for those workers who carried us through the pandemic, there will be payback. One group of workers that have not been talked about enough, but who were absolutely essential and worked throughout the pandemic, are private security workers working in our hospitals, on the buses and the Luas, and in the courts, supermarkets, the ESB, Google, nightclubs, hotels - you name it. Average pay in the sector is €11.65. There have been two delays in pay increases they were supposed to get under an employment regulation order, ERO, because the Minister did not sign off on the pay increases. The Scrooge employers in this sector are now trying, through court action, to block pay increases for these workers. I ask the Taoiseach to address the low pay plight and the failure to get pay increases for these private security workers and, indeed, to talk about increasing the living wage to increase their low pay.
It is clear that the new wave of Covid and the Covid restrictions are setting back economic recovery. In fact, we have seen people losing work or even losing their jobs as a result of the restrictions that have had to be brought back in. With the new round of restrictions, one thing that has been very definitely missing is another round of supports. Last year, the Government accepted and bowed to the pressure of the demands from the left and the housing movement for an eviction ban during Covid. With another round of restrictions and with people out of work due to Covid, does the Taoiseach accept it is now necessary to reintroduce that ban? The last thing we want is that people who lost their jobs due to these new restrictions are made homeless over Christmas or are forced into unnecessary visits, looking for a new place to live. Will the Government act now and reintroduce the eviction ban, at the very least until Covid restrictions can be lifted?
We cannot talk about economic recovery without talking about a cost-of-living crisis facing many families and workers across an array of areas, whether it be the huge rents and mortgages we talk about here, the insurance costs that are still crippling people or childcare costs. In particular, the issue that comes up time and again is the cost of home heating and motor fuel, which is putting people over the edge. I know people who are missing meals in order to be able to travel to work. Regardless of what we might talk about, whether it is the fuel allowance or anything else, the vast majority of people who are getting up in the morning to travel to work have had no support from the Government. I acknowledge that the Government is not responsible for the global issues that have led to the high cost of fuel, but it has done nothing to help. In fact, its response in the budget was to increase those costs further through the carbon tax. Has the Taoiseach spoken to the European Commission with regard to reducing the VAT rate on motor fuel and home heating costs? That needs to be done and it needs to happen quickly.
I want to raise with the Taoiseach the well-being of people living in emergency accommodation. Over the past year, I have been raising with him and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the conditions in privately run emergency accommodation. There is a complete lack of Garda vetting of staff, a lack of proper policies and procedures, a lack of safeguarding procedures and a lack of proper training of staff. There is a complete failure to implement or apply the national quality standards framework, which is meant to apply to all providers of homeless services.
In one hostel, residents complain that there are no sheets or duvets provided on their beds. They also complain that members of staff take drugs while on duty, source drugs from the residents in the hostel, sell drugs in the hostel-----
I can provide the Taoiseach with the details. This is utterly unacceptable behaviour and complaints have gone in on this. People living in emergency accommodation deserve a proper response on this and that proper standards are implemented.
Quality of life is an important metric. During Covid, we saw a drastic increase in domestic abuse cases as lockdowns led to an increase in emotional, physical and sexual assaults, particularly against women. We had the shocking revelations about the 999 calls, as the Taoiseach knows, and there is a bit of work to be done on that yet. According to Safe Ireland, an average of 180 women and 275 children looked for emergency accommodation every month between March and December 2020. At the same time, 2,159 requests for refuge from vulnerable women and children could not be met by the services.
It was 2,159. That is deeply worrying. The facts speak for themselves; we need more capacity in the system. Will the Taoiseach consider a timeline to provide the additional requirements and spaces that we need, particularly as we have signed up to the Istanbul convention? Ultimately, we are failing these people by not being able to provide such services.
Fáilte ar ais, a Cheann Comhairle. Much of the domestic economy is radically suffering. The hospitality, travel and entertainment sectors are in big trouble. Many have reopened after long closures just to find they either have to close again or partially close. Nightclubs opened on 22 October and then effectively had to close a month later. Pubs and restaurants are telling me they have had widespread Christmas party cancellations during one of their busiest seasons. The constant stopping and starting and changing is taking a significant toll on businesses. We saw that the €9 meals were safer than the €8 meals. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, said that PCR tests taken before outbound journeys are good for when people come back, so people can actually take a PCR test in Ireland, fly to South Africa and come back on the same PCR test, on the basis of that statement. The Minister for Health said pantomimes can go ahead but children should not go to them. We are at peak confusion in the enterprise sector at the moment. At the same time, supports such as the EWSS are starting to reduce. Can the Taoiseach guarantee businesses that, while this confusion is happening, they will have the necessary supports?
In response to Deputy Tóibín, I have never actually heard him support public health measures. Does he? Every time he comes in, he is always trying to undermine the fundamental public health messaging, which is fairly basic, straightforward and appropriate.
I just rhetorically put the point in response to the questions he asked, which I think are a distortion of what has transpired over the past while. Ireland's overall response to the pandemic has been, relatively speaking, much better than that of many others. We had an example of that yesterday with the presentation by Emer Cooke, director of the European Medicines Agency, EMA, in terms of the high vaccination rate in Ireland, which has resulted in low deaths per million relative to other countries where vaccination is lower.
We have to keep things in perspective as well in regard to all of this. The overall objective is to protect lives and public health. That is what we are all here for.
Regarding Deputy Kelly's points, I made my comments in terms of the EWSS. In regard to gender-based and domestic violence and so on, the Ministers for Justice, Housing, Local Government and Heritage, and Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth are working on a strategic framework on domestic abuse and working, in a more timely way, on areas where we have reduced capacity or no capacity geographically in terms of refuges and supports, with a view to providing additional supports. I take the issue the Deputy addressed seriously and in good faith and will continue to work on it.
On Deputy O'Callaghan's point, I do not know whether that matter has been referred to the Garda. If people who are meant to be looking after the homeless are looking for drugs and selling drugs, that is a very serious assertion. I take his point about an overall regulatory framework governing emergency accommodation and the homeless. To be fair to the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, it works with tried and trusted partners, and local authorities do likewise. That is why I am always very worried about new developments or new organisations being established. We have existing organisations that are tried and trusted and we should work with them on the homeless issue.
Deputy Carthy spoke about the cost of living and so forth. I made the overall point on this earlier. On VAT, we all need to be honest with ourselves. He knows that what he has suggested cannot be done. As for his get-out clause of asking whether I asked the Commission, he knows the answer. His party said we should go to zero. We cannot go to zero; that is the problem.
On Deputy Paul Murphy's point, there are a range of protections that have been provided through successive legislation brought in by the Minister, who keeps the legislation under ongoing review in the context of the pandemic and will continue to do so.
Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the situation of private security workers. Obviously, there is an industrial relations process that is under way in respect of pay claims. Many of those workers have provided very valuable services throughout the pandemic. Regarding the full background of the particular claim, the Minister responsible-----
Yes, but the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform obviously has a role as well. I will check that with the Minister of State.
Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked about accessing education and the well-being framework. In the engagement with stakeholders, equality of opportunity, equality of access and equity will be key elements of an eventual well-being framework that will be developed. Those are emerging themes in the current well-being consultation process. In the immediate sense, however, in terms of individual school projects, refusals and so forth, was the Deputy referring to a planning refusal?
That is problematic in terms of school developments and so on. I will talk to the Minister to see what we can do, particularly in terms of the ASD provision, which is urgent for the children involved.