Thursday, 9 December 2021
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
The British Government intends to introduce a requirement for EU citizens who are not Irish citizens to apply for travel clearance if they wish to cross the Border on this island. It is bizarre that I am even saying that because the proposal is so disgraceful. It is such a shameful measure. It threatens livelihoods, particularly those in the tourism sector in my region, the north west. It places massive stress on individuals from other EU countries who reside in this State. It undermines the Good Friday Agreement and the common travel area. Ireland once again faces the prospect of collateral damage caused by a Tory Government in Westminster that does not give a damn about it. That the Tory Government could even countenance a measure like this shows how divorced it is from the reality of life on the Border. What action is the Irish Government going to take to make it absolutely clear to the British Government that this is not on?
I thank the Deputy. We are certainly going to communicate to our UK counterparts our concerns and objections regarding this measure. Unfortunately, it does not come as a huge surprise. The Deputy may recall that part of the argument in favour of Brexit was about controlling UK borders and reducing and stopping immigration from the EU. This is part of the outworking of that. It may be the case that some people who voted for Brexit did not realise that, but it is part of the outworking of Brexit that the UK is going to harden its borders and reduce immigration, including from the EU. Ending free movement was a big part of the argument the UK made, but we will absolutely be making our views known.
We have a personnel crisis in our Defence Forces. There is a cohort of privates and corporals recruited since 1994 who can continue in service only until the end of next year, December 2022. It is estimated that 700 experienced non-commissioned officers in the post-1994 cohort will be leaving. We cannot support this. The knowledge and expertise are going. If the personnel meet the medical and fitness criteria that would allow them to continue to serve, why can the Government not address this? Will the Tánaiste clarify for this House that this will be addressed? It is obvious that this should not be allowed to happen. We need to have a decision on this very soon. It is completely unfair and unreasonable to treat the affected personnel like this. Will the Tánaiste commit that the Government will make a decision on this before the end of this year?
We very much welcome the scheme for the regularisation of undocumented migrants and their families. I acknowledge the work of the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, and the advisory committee led by Ms Catherine Day, and all the NGOs that have worked tirelessly to ensure this happened. It will be life-changing for so many people, particularly those who live in the economic shadows of our society and in circumstances of poverty. It is in light of this and the economic vulnerability of those concerned that I ask the Government to go one step further by waiving the fee of €550 for an individual and €700 for a family. It may not seem like a lot of money to us, but it is a huge amount to those who live in the circumstances in question. Since there is a window of only six months in which to avail of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, it would be a travesty if a financial barrier were to prevent somebody from doing so. Therefore, I ask the Government to waive the fee.
I thank the Deputy for the question. As she says, this is an important scheme for the undocumented and those who have been in direct provision for more than two years. As the Deputy knows, the scheme does not apply any charge to those who are in direct provision. Therefore, about 2,800 individuals will be able to participate in the scheme without any charge.
Regarding undocumented migrants who wish to participate in the scheme, we believe the charges are fair. The charge for an individual is €550. It is €700 for a family, be it a family of two, four or five. The fee set is just to allow the Department to cover the administration costs and it is not intended to bring in any revenue. It has been set at a level that allows us to cover our costs. The scheme will be accessible to applicants whom we know are working in the black economy. The scheme is to regularise their circumstances so they can participate in the normal economy.
I spent the morning with Pete Brennan from Kingswood, Tallaght. He caught Covid at the end of last year. He went to Tallaght hospital and ended up in intensive care. He was in a coma for three months. It is a really terrifying story. Pete's family were told to prepare for the worst but he managed to recover, defying the odds. Like tens of thousands of others in this country, he is now suffering from long Covid. He described to me his brain fog, post-traumatic stress disorder and difficulty breathing. He still needs regular support, which he describes as essential and which he gets from the long Covid clinic run by Professor Donnelly in Tallaght hospital. However, Pete and Professor Donnelly have been told the clinic's funding will run out at the end of February. The clinic has been told to prepare for the worst. Pete is fighting back and campaigning to save Tallaght's long Covid clinic. I ask the Tánaiste to intervene to ensure the clinic will get the long-term funding it needs as part of expanding a nationwide network of long Covid clinics to have the capacity and expertise to deal with what is going to be a growing challenge.
I thank the Deputy for sharing Pete's story in the Chamber. I am glad he has survived Covid but, obviously, very sorry to hear he is still experiencing the long-term effects of it. We are still learning about this new virus and this new post-viral syndrome and we have a lot still to learn about diagnosing and treating it. I do not have the details of the clinic in Tallaght hospital the Deputy mentions. There will be a meeting of the Cabinet subcommittee on health this afternoon, so I will make sure the matter is mentioned then and brought to the attention of the Minister.
Last Tuesday, much of the country was hit by high winds and rain. For decades now, the very hint of high winds and rain strikes terror into the people of Bantry and now Castletownbere as what happened on Tuesday has been happening for years, with businesses and residences ending up flooded. The mop-up operation on Tuesday in Bantry has once again angered business people as they are worn out and sick to the teeth from listening to promises of progress on flood relief works. Will the Tánaiste give us today an exact date for the flood relief works to start in Bantry? Will he and the Government agree a proper compensation package for the people of Bantry, which is continually destroyed by floods?
I cannot give the Deputy a date, unfortunately, but I will ask the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, to contact him about that. I was in Bantry the summer before last, just after the floods, and saw some of the businesses that had been damaged at that time. My Department has a scheme that can help businesses that are not insurable or that cannot get insurance with the cost of rebuilding. I am not sure if that is the case for any of the businesses in Bantry at the moment, but that scheme is available if they need that help.
I acknowledge that more than 1 million people have received their third dose of the vaccine to date, but why are there not more local pharmacies and community centres involved in providing third doses? I went to Citywest on the Monday before last. I had not received an appointment from the HSE; I was a walk-in. I got there at 8 o'clock in the morning. I spent two hours standing outside in the marquee with all the other over-60s in the freezing cold and then spent an hour queuing in the centre. I got my dose at 11 a.m. At UCD this morning, people visiting the centre as walk-ins, having travelled by bus or whatever, found that the cut-off point came at 9 a.m. because there were too many people queuing for the walk-in service. I ask the Tánaiste to look at getting these vaccine centres into the communities so people in my cohort - many of us are healthy but many of us are not - to get their vaccines in their local area.
I wish to express my regrets and to apologise on behalf of the Government and the HSE for the inconvenience faced this morning by people who queued for a third dose and were not able to get it. In the round, the third dose programme is going very well. More than 1 million people in Ireland have received their third dose. I think we are very close to the top of the league table in the European Union for third doses. We are in about fourth place out of 27 countries, but I know that if you are left standing in the cold waiting for a vaccine you do not get, that is pretty cold comfort. There have been IT problems and teething problems and we will get them right, just like we got them right during the first period of the vaccine programme.
I am told that about 900 pharmacies are now involved in the programme.
I welcome that the Christmas bonus is being paid this week. I also welcome the €5 million announced by the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, for community pantos. I spoke to her about Striking Productions in Carlow, a community panto which has lost a lot of funding.
Christmas is about families. Why is the assisted human reproduction Bill being delayed? We need to recognise families engaged in international surrogacy. Our society now knows there are many ways to become a family, and we must recognise that the law must catch up in that regard. All families are equal. When can we expect the Bill to come before the House? Many families in my area have contacted me about it. It is urgent. I ask that the Bill be brought through the House as soon as possible.
This is not being delayed - not deliberately, anyway - but it has been going on far too long. I think that when I was Minister for Health, in 2014 or 2015, we published the broad outline as to what the Bill would look like, and that is five or six years ago. I know that a lot of work has been done in the Department of Health since then with the assistance of the Department of Justice. We are very keen that this should be the Government that legislates for this area, where there are too many lacunae at the moment. My understanding is that a special committee is due to be established by the Oireachtas. That committee will try to gain consensus and tease out some of the very difficult issues, including complicated ethical issues, that arise from assisted human reproduction. I hope we will be able to get that committee set up in the new year and then legislate on foot of that.
Blackpool and Mayfield are communities in my constituency, Cork North-Central, that are in dire need of regeneration. I have asked that both communities be included in a regeneration plan. Cork City Council has applied for funding under the regeneration development fund but the application has been rejected. These are great communities that need support. The community I come from, Knocknaheeny, is part of a regeneration plan, and I ask that Mayfield and Blackpool be included. I invite the Tánaiste, the next time he is in Cork, to walk Blackpool and Mayfield with me to look at the dereliction and vacancy that are blighting these brilliant communities. I hope he will take me up on that offer.
All of us have welcomed the roll-out of free antigen testing to our institutes of higher education. This makes absolute sense in addressing the risk of the spread of Covid-19 among third level students. Why have 12% of students in higher education institutions been excluded, namely, students in private higher education institutions such as St. Nicholas Montessori College in Dún Laoghaire, Griffith College, Hibernian College and Dublin Business School? It makes absolute sense that we roll this testing out across the sector to protect society as a whole. Many of these institutions were involved in the pilot programme as well as students from the institutions, particularly in St. Nicholas, where students were involved in supplementing the sector when they were needed most. Will the Government look at this roll-out to ensure that all students of higher education are treated equally?
I commend the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, and his team on getting the pilot done. We have been too slow to adopt antigen testing in Ireland but, in fairness to the third level sector, it was one of the sectors that led on this. The Minister made sure that happened, and €9 million has been provided for free antigen tests in the public third level institutions. I do not see why that could not be extended to the private ones, so I will certainly take that up with the Minister and see if we can get that done.
I wish to raise the issue of pyrite in County Clare again. I have a letter here from the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, dated 7 July, stating that Clare would be included in the scheme once the same rigorous analysis that was done in Mayo and Donegal to quantify the extent of the problem in those counties had been done in Clare. That testing has been done. A Dáil motion was passed unanimously on 15 June calling for a 100% redress scheme and no less, with no hidden details, fine print, sliding scales, etc. It has been six months. Why is the Government denying people in Clare justice and equality? The families feel like they are being gaslighted and that the delay is inevitable. It is causing their homes to crumble around them. What will the Government do for people in Clare?
My understanding is that the new mica scheme, which will require legislation in this House, will operate on a national basis. Therefore, if there are homes in Clare, Limerick and other counties that are affected by mica, they would be included. It will not be just for Mayo and Donegal. Again, this is really a matter for the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, so I will let him know that the Deputy raised it and she might want to come back with more detail.
On somewhat the same topic, I think we all recognise the anguish of families who have seen the house of their dreams crumble before their eyes because of defective materials. The Government has rightly introduced a scheme which shows solidarity with those people. However, given the scale of this, the cost of which is already €2 billion and rising, does the Tánaiste believe that financial institutions should be contributing towards the cost of such a scheme, given that it is their portfolio of loans which is now being shored up by taxpayers and that their financial position is greatly strengthened in that respect?
Should they be making an inexorable contribution toward the cost that is falling on the taxpayer?
I suppose they would probably argue that they already make that contribution through the bank levy, which applies to banks that in some cases were not bailed out by the State, and one that has already repaid all of the money it was given. The levy was brought in for that purpose. Some of the institutions would argue that they are now paying for it through that levy. I am not sure I agree with that argument, but that is the argument they would make. However, it is very much the view of the Government and the Minister of Finance that the cost of this should not fall entirely on the taxpayer. The Minister is working on a proposal to introduce a levy on the construction sector. That will not cover the entire cost of it, but it will cover some of it. He will have that ready for the budget next October with a view to introducing it from 2023.
I understand that a Government MEP has put pen to paper expressing the possibility of a curtailment by the banks of lending to the agrifood sector. Is there recognition of the devastating effect that could have on an industry that has stood its ground, put its shoulder to the wheel and defended what had to be defended, when called upon, in this country? Further, I ask the Tánaiste to confirm that it is not Government policy, and that it is recognised that not only would rural Ireland be punished severely if the pursuit of such a policy was followed, but that urban Ireland and the continuity of food supplies to the capital city and every town in the country would equally be threatened.
The MEP in question is absolutely entitled to his own opinion and to write whatever letters he sees fit, but I can confirm that it is not Government policy - far from it. The Government is encouraging banks to lend money to young farmers. In fact, my Department runs schemes that help to guarantee those loans. It is Government policy that banks should lend to young farmers. We want to encourage young people into agriculture and food production. We want them to invest in expanding and modernising their farms. Indeed, younger farmers, in particular, who understand the need to take climate action, know that that costs money and requires up-front investment. How are they going to do that without loans from the banks?
As the number of people getting infected with Covid escalates, we see the chaos around third level examinations and assessments unfolding. Mass examination halls at normal capacity are being used to host the end-of-semester exams. Many students and staff have legitimate health and safety concerns for themselves and vulnerable family members. Others are Covid-positive or are close contacts and have their movements restricted or have to self-isolate. Deferring exams and assessment is a deplorable option. Aside from the anxiety and stress caused by deferring exams, the financial implications in terms of additional costs and loss of income are grossly unfair. We have been calling for alternative arrangements to be put in place since early November. Can the Tánaiste give me a clear reason most assessments and exams cannot be done online to enable students to comply with public health guidance and ensure they can have a family Christmas too?
There are no plans to defer the end-of-term exams. It is encouraging that the incidence of the virus among the 18 to 24 age group is now falling, albeit slightly. The 50% indoor capacity restriction does not apply to exam halls. One thing we have done is to introduce free antigen testing in third level colleges. That can be very beneficial for students who can take an antigen test before they engage in social activities and also before taking exams.
The town centre first approach is writ large across the programme for Government. It has since been put at the heart of the Our Rural Future document and Housing for All. Our towns and villages offer a serious quality of life proposition, but only if supported with good public services, a proper public realm and attractive housing solutions. The Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, announced this morning the first phase of funding for the development of town centre first plans, amounting to €2.6 million for 26 towns across the Twenty-six Counties. I am very pleased to see Portlaw in County Waterford included in the first phase of funding. The town is a very good fit. Its community enhancement committee is doing great work on the ground. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, will agree with me on that. How is it intended for this round of funding to be put to work? More broadly, when will we see the town centre first policy published to underpin this work into the future?
As the Deputy mentioned, the Minister for Rural and Community Development announced this morning the first phase of funding for the development of the first town centre first plans. There will be €2.6 million in funding for 26 town in 26 counties. The Deputy will be pleased that Portlaw in County Waterford has been included in the first phase of this. I share the Deputy's thanks to, and respect for, the community enhancement committee for doing the great work on the ground to make that possible. I am sure that the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, and Senator Cummins would agree with me on that. I do not have a date yet for the publication of the town centre first policy, but I know it is a priority of the Government. It is a priority of the Green Party. We need to ensure we get it done. I expect it will be next year, but I do not have a date at the moment.
In November 2019, the Government signed the contract for the national broadband plan, despite several warnings that it was a bad deal for the taxpayer. Indeed, the Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform warned that the consortium could recoup all of its money by 2028 and then sell up shop. Nevertheless, the taxpayer agreed to fork out €2.7 billion for a network that we will never own. The broadband plan is now way behind schedule. Its target for homes connected by next January has been cut in half. Today, we have learned that David McCourt and other investors were paid out €50 million in 2020 before a single home was even connected, with the taxpayer paying them €43 million. Will the Tánaiste tell us how the investors were able to suck out money before a single home was connected? I ask him to confirm that the Government will publish the criteria linking State payments to the milestones reached.
The national broadband plan is behind schedule, but it will catch up. When the plan is complete in a few years' time, nobody will doubt that this was a good investment. This is the biggest investment in the history of rural Ireland, linking up half a million homes, farms and businesses-----
I was contacted by the mother of an 18-month-old boy during the week. When the child was six weeks old, their GP highlighted that the baby had an undescended testicle. He was referred to a consultant in County Cavan, but he needs to see a paediatric urologist in Temple Street Children's Hospital. His parents have just been told that he may get a consultation when he is five years old. That is three and a half years from now. The parents are naturally worried because if untreated, their son may encounter fertility issues later in life or a higher risk of cancer. The family feel they are being pushed towards seeking a private consultation when financially, they cannot afford to, but for the sake of the future health of their son, they feel they cannot afford to fail to take the private route. Why are children facing waiting lists? Are regular reviews carried out in our hospitals to identify where there are consultant shortages? The waiting time for this child is three and a half years. How many children are being affected by these waiting lists?
That is certainly not acceptable. If, with the permission of the family, the Deputy wants to pass on the details of the case to my office, I will follow up on it and see if there is anything that we can do. It may be that there is a shortage of consultant paediatric urologists. It is a lesser known fact in Ireland, but there are 40% more consultants in Ireland and 40% more doctors in our public health service than there were ten years ago. However, notwithstanding that, in some specialties we are finding real difficulty in recruiting people to the public service. That is resulting in some big problems. If the Deputy wants to pass on the details of the case, with the permission of the family, we will check up on it.
The Government has responded to the hospitality sector with various supports. There is no doubt that the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, and Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, have been extremely helpful. However, the sector is on its knees and all the sectors providing associated employment are also in difficulty, including the entertainment industry, individuals and groups. The Irish Hotels Federation has contacted us all again.
Locally, the Seven Oaks Hotel in Carlow, on behalf of its members, and the Newpark Hotel in Kilkenny highlighted the other costs they are lumbered with. These are costs such as recruiting people from abroad and then having to put the recruitment on hold because they are closed down again. Then there is the loss of income, for example, €140,000 in December for one hotel alone. Will the Tánaiste please look at the supports that can be given beyond the existing schemes in order that they can reopen again?
I thank the Deputy. We are going to have to do that, and we will do it. The Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, and I co-chair the hospitality forum. We are going to have to have more discussions about this in the new year. What we have done to help the sector through this difficult period and the new restrictions is that the commercial rates holiday will be extended until the end of the first quarter of next year, if not for longer. The employment wage subsidy scheme will be restored to the higher level of payment. The Covid restrictions support scheme is being extended to cover businesses that are fully closed such as nightclubs. The Deputy has put his finger on a real issue. The hospitality sector is severely restricted and facing into a very difficult period but has to bring in staff from overseas. There are businesses that cannot get staff. This shows how complex the problems we face now are. We are subsidising such employment, but the same businesses have to go abroad to get staff. It requires more comprehensive examination.
The Government has placed the passage tombs in Sligo on a list of properties that are considered suitable for nomination as UNESCO world heritage sites. Earlier this year, a folio of land at Cairns Hill in Sligo was put on the market. I raised the issue locally and was told that the OPW was going to bid for the site and asked not to go public on the matter. Had the latter not happened, I would have raised the issue in the Dáil. I trusted the OPW to buy this site and thereby ensure public access to the cairns. A local group would have tried to raise funds to purchase the site but it also stood back because it was asked not to raise the price of the site. Now it is too late. The site has been sold and we have been told that the vendor chose not to accept the OPW's bid. Why did the OPW not submit another bid? The selling price was reasonable. This is a very important site. Had the OPW bid succeeded, it would have guaranteed public access to the site and ensured an excellent addition to the portfolio of monuments in County Sligo. Those are the words of the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, not mine. This is a lost opportunity. What can we do about it now?
I thank the Deputy. I had the pleasure of spending some of my summer holidays last year in Sligo. I climbed Knocknarea and saw Queen Maeve's grave. I am familiar with the wider passage tomb complex in County Sligo. I strongly support the bid to include it as a world heritage site. I am not familiar with the particular site the Deputy mentioned, to be frank. I cannot really answer the question she posed on behalf of the Ministers of State, Deputies O'Donovan and Noonan. I will let them know the Deputy raised the matter here today. I know it is an important issue. I will ask the Ministers of State to speak directly to the Deputy about it.