Wednesday, 15 December 2021
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
Hard-pressed families cannot continue to wait for support when it comes to soaring energy bills. The €100 support announced by the Government earlier this week is welcome, but it is modest. The Irish Examinerreported last week that some households are facing bills of over an extra €1,000 for electricity and gas next year. While this €100 support will bring some relief, we need to see it this side of Christmas. It really is ridiculous that the Government is not willing to push this forward now when people need it, rather than kicking the can down the road into next year. Last month, I published a cost of living report, as part of which over 14,000 people responded to a survey. One comment from a mother said:
We are a family of four. Our electricity bill has gone, on average, from €160 to €210 in the last three months. We are so terrified for this winter with rising costs and we have not filled the oil tank yet.
People are struggling right now and need support right now. They cannot wait until next spring for that support.
The Government absolutely acknowledges that many individuals and families are under pressure at this time, particularly with rising fuel costs and electricity costs and so on. It is important to say that the measure we agreed at Cabinet on Tuesday to provide a rebate or a discount, as such, of €100 off every domestic electricity bill is in addition to the targeted measures that were introduced in the budget last October. Unusually, those changes in respect of the fuel allowance and indeed, in relation to the means test and the eligibility criteria for the fuel allowance, kicked in immediately. That involved a €5 increase from budget night on the weekly rate of the fuel allowance. We increased the income threshold and recipients of jobseeker's allowance and supplementary welfare allowance now may qualify for fuel allowance after 12 months, reduced from 15 months. We will execute this new payment through the electricity bill as soon as we possibly can, because we recognise that people are under pressure.
The Tánaiste could not be here today, but he was on the "Pat Kenny Show" on radio, basically telling us that new restrictions will be coming in in respect of social mixing, contact tracing and international travel. Days are important. I ask the Government to meet tomorrow night rather than on Friday to make decisions. With international travel, for instance, the EU Commission is proposing that from 15 January, the maximum validity of a Covid certificate will be nine months. Therefore, anyone who has a certificate valid from before 15 April 2021 will not be able to travel. It is important information. France has gone a step further and is already preventing those aged over 65 from boarding trains or accessing hospitality services unless they are triple vaxxed. Big decisions have to be made here. Most importantly, I ask the Minister to assure the House now that Covid certificates, which we all have on our phones, will incorporate the third vaccine. If the infrastructure is not there on our phones and certificates, soon people will not be able to travel, particularly across Europe.
It is important to say that the updating of the technology to take account of the booster dose should be done at a time when people have had the opportunity to have that dose. We are now at a point where around 1.3 million booster doses and third doses for the immunocompromised have been administered. We are going to accelerate the roll-out of the booster vaccine significantly. The Deputy will be aware of what the Taoiseach has announced in relation to the extended opening hours of the centres, for example, and the new centres that are going to be opened in the coming days. We very much welcome the commitment that we are getting from general practice. Almost 3,000 GPs and practice nurses took part in the IMO webinar last night. We are also getting very positive feedback from the pharmacy sector. We will see a very significant acceleration of the booster campaign. The commitment I can give is that once NPHET has met and a letter is issued by the CMO to the Minister for Health, that will be considered promptly by Government, because we recognise that people want information as quickly as it is available.
I think it is good fortune that the Minister of Public Expenditure and Reform is here to answer questions today, because I have a very specific question that relates to public expenditure. The grant for minor works arrived in schools today. We all welcome the fact that there was a 50% increase on the grant for the minor works which, is it assumed, will be used to install HEPA filters. Some schools may have to choose between installing HEPA filters and other minor works, such as bathroom renovations and fixing windows. I had huge issues with that and that was intended to be the subject of my original question. However, the remittance slip that arrived in schools today contains a curiosity. The remittance slip states that the grant is for 2022 and 2023. I ask the Minister to confirm that the minor works grant for schools next year will still be at least €30 million, as it was this year, and that schools will not have to choose between installing HEPA filters and doing bathroom renovations, not only for next year but for the year after that too? Will there be the same minor works grant for schools in 2022 as there was intended to be this year, or is that extra money being taken from the 2023 budget?
I have had a fair bit of engagement with the Minister for Education in relation to this issue in recent weeks. The minor works grant is normally paid in November or December. It is normally at a level of around €30 million for primary schools, as the Deputy has acknowledged. What was announced and paid out is a sum of €62 million, which is more than double the grant in total. The €30 million element of it - let us call it the normal minor works grant - is the 2021 allocation. It is not an advanced payment of next year's grant. We have provided substantial extra minor works grants to schools over the last two years to address the genuine issues that arise for them in adapting classrooms and making their schools as safe as possible for the pupils and the staff. I am happy to clarify the point for the Deputy. As the Deputy is aware, we have also provided minor works grants for secondary schools as part of this announcement.
The last time I raised this issue, the Tánaiste answered by begging more questions than he actually answered. It is on the ownership of the national maternity hospital. I asked about the possibility of placing a compulsory purchase order on the land and the legal advice received from the senior counsel, Stephen Dodd. In his answer the Tánaiste described a situation in the national maternity hospital that would see us integrating the new hospital into St. Vincent's hospital holdings rather than co-locating. The best example of co-location is the national children's hospital on the grounds of St James's Hospital. It does not matter whether there is a corridor joining the two buildings. It is irrelevant.
The second question his answer begged was when he mentioned there could be a loss of goodwill. He really needs to address this, or at least the Government does. Is it a hint that we may lose the support of the St. Vincent's holding company because its ethos is still based on its original Catholic founder? Where does this leave the women and the future of maternity care in this country? From a purely financial point of view, and the expenditure of €800 million and probably more on a new hospital, would it not be in the financial interests of the State to own the land?
I will ask the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, to come back to the Deputy on the specific issue of the ownership. I reiterate the point that has been made by the Minister and others in recent months, which is we will only be investing in a new hospital once we have absolute assurance that all legal services available in the State will be provided in that hospital and that it will be free of any religious ethos or influence in this regard. This is the absolute bottom line of the Government in this regard. A substantial amount of public money is required. We want to get this done because we recognise a new national maternity hospital is required. It is urgent for the women and babies of Ireland. The Government is committed to doing this. I will ask the Minister to revert directly to the Deputy on the specific ownership question.
The hospitality sector has suffered enormously since the pandemic began. As the Minister is aware, people had barely settled back to work when it was deemed necessary to implement further restrictions. Hotels are being particularly hard hit by these restrictions. Room bookings, meetings and numerous events have been cancelled. This will drastically curtail seasonal trading for hotels in Tipperary and throughout the country. They most certainly will not have the thin layer of financial security they had hoped for as they head into the bleak months of January and February. It has been highlighted extensively by many in the sector that they have had difficulties in hiring staff since they reopened. Most are operating on a skeleton staff or are seriously understaffed. Those who manage to hire staff are anxious to hold onto them but they are worried they will be unable to afford to do so. Hotels are seeking support in the form of the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, to enable them to retain their staff until the easing of restrictions permit them to trade fully.
I thank Deputy Lowry for raising this issue. The Government has announced the reinstatement of the enhanced rates of the EWSS, which is a very important support for the hospitality sector and all other sectors. There are qualifying criteria because this is taxpayers' money. In essence it relates to a 30% reduction in turnover relative to a reference period back in 2019. The EWSS remains open for new entrants until the end of the year. It is open to any participant to add new employees at any point until then. The plan is that it will be tapered off with a view to ending in April next year. The Minister for Finance will come before the House later today to debate the Finance Bill and additional amendments that have come from the Seanad. This will provide another opportunity to discuss the finer points of how it will work.
The issue of the Tipperary town bypass has been raised. Some of us have received very good responses from the Minister, Deputy Ryan. He visited and met Jobs for Tipp, March for Tipp and the chamber of commerce, who are actively seeking a bypass of the town. The Minister tells us the mood music is good and the Ceann Comhairle commented on it, but we need the money - the airgead. Cad a dheánfaimid feasta gan airgead? We have to have the money. The Minister is in a position to give an indication. It is not clearly stated in the planned public expenditure outlay. We need this upgrade urgently and the money allocated to get the costings and bypass the town. I hope it will be on the route of the new M24. We need the money. The Minister has visited Tipperary as did the Minister, Deputy Ryan. We know the problems. The commitment is there from the Minister, Deputy Ryan, but we need the funding to ensure the people of Tipperary can live a normal life.
I have given the chequebook for transport to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and it is a large chequebook because he has a budget of €35 billion out to 2030 for transport-related capital projects. The national development plan is not intended to be an exhaustive list of every project that will happen in the coming decade. It is a high-level budgetary framework for our public capital investment plans over the next period of time.
I am aware of the calls and the need for a bypass of Tipperary town. Deputy McGrath has made the point and Deputy Cahill has raised it with me consistently. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, is especially anxious to see the development of bypasses over the coming years. I would like to see the plan developed. If it is brought forward, it will then be a question of providing the funding. There is a very large envelope which will be divided between maintenance of the existing network, approximately €3.6 billion for active travel measures, and new investment in public transport and in road infrastructure. It is about getting the project ready to the point it can absorb capital.
The Brandon report was commissioned from the national independent review panel by the HSE. The report that looks at the management, or indeed mismanagement, in a residential centre in Donegal. It outlines the sexual abuse of up to 20 residents by another resident and the inaction of the HSE, the Garda and HIQA on it for many years. It has been reported today that the HSE will publish the executive summary of the report in the coming days. Will the Minister share the calls by the Taoiseach and Tánaiste for the immediate publication of the full Brandon report? This will ensure lessons will be learned from this sad case. Will the Government publish the full report if the HSE does not do so? The HSE has shown it has no interest. Will we have to read the full report into the Dáil record to ensure it is published?
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and I acknowledge his work on it and his role in bringing forward the issue. The issue set out in the report is deeply disturbing. The fact it continued over such a period of time with the knowledge of people on the ground and members of staff is quite shocking. I will have to ask the Minister to come back to the Deputy on the intention to publish the report. I certainly believe in openness. If there is no compelling reason not to publish it, then I believe it should be published.
The roll-out of the national broadband plan needs to be seriously ramped up and pushed up a gear in the coming year. We are drifting towards a risk of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory if we do not capitalise on the opportunities presented by remote and hybrid working throughout our rural communities. We expect more than 4,800 households to be connected in townlands around Castlebar and Ballina before the first quarter of 2022. I understand this significant first step from Mayo is facing additional delays. This is simply not acceptable. We need to escalate dramatically the prioritisation of broadband roll-out in government and get connections live in counties so people can feel that good broadband connectivity is becoming more of a reality for them. In outdoor advertising as well as in engagement with roadshows throughout the county, National Broadband Ireland states high-speed broadband has arrived. This is completely untrue and equates to false advertising. It is only adding insult to injury and frustrating people. Will the Minister provide an update on the roll-out of the national broadband programme in Mayo?
The national broadband plan is one of the most ambitious rural broadband plans in the world. I have spoken to Ministers from throughout Europe and nobody is trying to connect every rural home, business and farm to fibre broadband. I expect that by the end of this month, between 50,000 and 60,000 homes in the intervention area will be able to order or preorder fibre broadband to their house for delivery.
We have 121,000 homes that are under fibre broadband construction-build at the moment, and in the past 12 months, ComReg's figures show that 120,000 Irish homes had broadband fibre connections brought into their homes, which is a 50% increase on the number that was there a year before and a 50% increase again on the numbers that were there two years ago. We have a situation where we have for very large providers who are building fibre broadband to the home at speed and as fast as possibly can be done.
I need to raise the matter of non-Covid patients who are waiting for access to health services. Many vulnerable people, whether they are in hospital, in the accident and emergency department or up in the ward, would previously have had a family member who could advocate on their behalf and to explain their situation. That is no longer possible with the restrictions. People are feeling very isolated and families are very concerned. It is also very difficult for the hospital staff because people may be too ill to outline their situation or detail their medication. It is difficult for everybody. We recognise there is a need for the restrictions to fight Covid-19 and there is no easy answer to this, but there is a need to acknowledge the situation in which these people find themselves. They are very vulnerable and exposed. Are there some measures the hospitals can take to give people access?
At a human level, this has been one of the most difficult issues that has presented itself over the past 21 months or so where people have not been able to visit loved ones in hospital where they have been in very difficult circumstances and acute need. As the Deputy will know, the Health Protection Surveillance Centre has issued guidance on access to acute hospitals over the course of the pandemic. It is important that all steps are taken to prevent infection spread throughout the hospital system. Decisions are made at a local, individual hospital level and on a case-by-case basis. We would obviously like to see as much compassion shown in the type of circumstances the Deputy has highlighted, particularly where certain patients are vulnerable and may be vulnerable for a variety of reasons. It is a decision that is best made at a local level.
Oireachtas Members were briefed yesterday on the subject of global vaccine equity and access by Irish academic and scientific experts. They were told that a waiver on the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, TRIPS, is essential. They told us the EU tactic is to use its counterproposal as a stalling tactic. This counterproposal focuses on existing provisions and compulsory licensing and does not go anywhere near far enough. Compulsory licensing only deals with the patent aspect of intellectual property, IP, and does not deal with trade secrets, data exclusivity or other overlapping layers. My party and others have been accused of virtue signalling about a TRIPS waiver, but nothing could be further from the truth. We can see the alternatives, such as COVAX, are not working. The Government has failed to support a TRIPS waiver but will the Government agree to meet with these academic and scientific experts, the People’s Vaccine Alliance, to hear their concerns?
I will pass on the Deputy's request for a meeting to the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, but it is worth highlighting the work that we have done on this issue. Up to yesterday, the Government had already approved a donation of up to 2 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines to developing countries in the coming months. The Minister, Deputy Donnelly, received the approval of Government for a further commitment to bring our overall contribution up to 3 million surplus Covid-19 vaccines to developing countries. Ireland is playing a very significant role, as is right and proper.
This day 28 years ago Albert Reynolds and John Major signed the Downing Street Declaration. That agreement was central to the successful negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to our country. Every community on this island continues to benefit from that agreement. Following on from the Downing Street Declaration, the first peace-funded programme, PEACE I, was established in 1995. PEACE I and successive programmes have enabled much-needed economic, social, educational and community developments, especially in less-advantaged areas in Northern Ireland and the Border region. The Minister will recall my ongoing representations regarding the need to put in place as soon as possible the PEACE PLUS programme. I appreciate the Minister’s role in having the draft programme finalised with committed funding of more than €1.1 billion. We need this inclusive and ambitious programme up and operational as soon as possible to ensure the continuation of very valuable cross-Border projects led by our local authorities, other statutory agencies and community groups. Will the Minister give me an assurance that there will be no delay in having the programme finally up and running?
I thank Deputy Smith for raising this issue and for his ongoing representations in support of the development of the PEACE PLUS programme. My Department has responsibility, on the part of the Irish Government, for the roll-out of this programme, working with the Northern Executive and, of course, the UK Government and the special EU programmes body. We have a very exciting programme at a value of €1.145 billion that has been approved by the Irish Government. The next step is for the draft programme to be submitted to the European Commission for its consideration and final approval, and I expect a formal launch will likely take place in the spring of 2022. The funding will start to flow under the various programmes under PEACE PLUS over the course of 2022. I thank the Deputy again for his support.
Will the Minister outline what progress has been made with regard to the support for Irish survivors of thalidomide Bill, which puts the provision of health and personal social supports on a statutory basis for Irish thalidomide survivors? Will he outline a timeframe for these legislative proposals?
I will ask the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, to come back to the Deputy on this issue of survivors of thalidomide and the legislation to which the Deputy has referred. He will come back to the Deputy with a specific update on that.
It is encouraging to see Ireland’s booster the campaign ramping up with more pharmacists, GPs and, indeed, HSE staff coming on board in a national effort to offer people a third vaccination before the Omicron variant becomes dominant. International evidence suggests a third dose of the mRNA vaccine offers significant protection against the Omicron variant. The national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, recommendation is that every adult who has received the one-shot Janssen vaccine can be offered the mRNA three months after their initial inoculation, which is very welcome. However, people in their 20s, 30s and 40s cannot access the booster campaign. Many of them followed public health advice in good faith and took the Janssen vaccine at the early stages of the initial vaccination programme. Will the Minister raise this situation with the Minister for Health and ask that an exemption be considered to the operational aspects of the campaign to allow those age cohorts access to vaccination either through their pharmacists or GPs?
I thank Deputy Devlin for raising this issue and for acknowledging the importance of the booster vaccination programme. I can tell the House that, yesterday, 45,000 booster vaccines were administered, which was the single biggest number to date in the booster programme. Those between the ages of 40 and 49 will start to receive the booster brought vaccine no later than the week commencing 27 December.
We are concerned about the specific issue raised by the Deputy about people who have received the single-shot Janssen vaccine because of the waning effectiveness over time. I know the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, has raised this specific issue with the CMO, Dr. Holohan, and with the NIAC. While they are approved to receive the booster vaccine, it has not been suggested to us they should be prioritised ahead of older cohorts. That is where things stand but we expect to receive a reply to that shortly.
The English Supreme Court has ruled that the PSNI’s decision to discontinue an investigation into the internment and torture of the hooded men was illegal. Hundreds were interned and some were subject to beatings, sleep deprivation, extreme psychological torment and denied food and water. That is torture in my book. This was sanctioned by the British Cabinet, just like the killing of Pat Finucane was sanctioned. There are a number of legacy issues here but Boris Johnson’s Government seems determined to ignore basic human rights obligations. Will the Minister reassure us that his Government will demand a fully independent investigation and will pressure the British Government to abide by international law and the agreements to which it has signed up, including the New Decade, New Approach agreement?
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The Government welcomes the decision of the UK Supreme Court this morning in respect of the hooded men case. We will, of course, study the findings of that judgment very carefully. I am sure the Deputy will be aware that in the course of their campaign, the Government has met and engaged with the men and, indeed, has supported their case, including as it was brought to the European Court of Human Rights. I have no doubt the Taoiseach will now follow up on this issue at the highest level with the British Government.
I welcome the announcement this morning by the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, of €3.7 million for charities that deal with animal welfare. I know he is currently reviewing the animal welfare strategy in his Department. What does the Government plan to do in its lifetime in terms of improving rights for animals? I refer in particular to the issue of horse welfare in my constituency. At present, there is no full-time designated official in Cork City Council or Cork County Council looking after animal welfare issues, there are no designated control areas as per the legislation under the Animal Welfare Act, there have been no prosecutions by An Garda Síochána and you can count on one hand the number of prosecutions the two councils have undertaken in recent years. I ask the Minister to provide me with some kind of answer on that issue or to speak to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine in respect of updating the House on the plan for animal welfare.
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue and for his continued interest in this matter. I will raise the specific issue with the Minister, Deputy McConalogue. The additional funding he has provided will be very much welcomed and put to good use. It is important to state that there is already extensive legislation in place that imposes clear legal obligations in the context of animal welfare. We now need to see enforcement of those regulations. The Minister will revert to the Deputy on the specific point raised.
There has been much talk in recent weeks about closing schools early because of the concerns relating to Covid and, specifically, the new Omicron surge. I ask the Minister to confirm that schools will remain open until the last day of term, which is in the middle of next week. A significant number of experts have stated in recent weeks that this should be used as a circuit-breaker, but the same experts have a different opinion on each of the seven days of the week, depending on what suits the media on the day. Children have gone through a significant amount in recent times. Their schooling has been disrupted for the past 18 months. Many of the Covid cases arise from after-school activities such as play dates and birthday parties and so on. I do not want to be a killjoy in the context of birthday parties or play dates but parents have to take responsibility for after-school activities.
I thank the Deputy. The roll-out of the vaccine for five- to 11-year-olds who are immunosuppressed and the most vulnerable will start next week. In fact, the vaccines of the particular paediatric Pfizer dose arrived in the country today. That will start next week. For all other five- to 11-year-olds, it will start in early January.
The Government has no plans for schools to close early before Christmas. It is important to state that many schools in 11 or 12 counties lost two days due to Storm Barra. We must also be cognisant of the impact of the closure of schools on working parents, including front-line workers whom we need in order to ensure we can continue to provide healthcare. We need to take all those factors on board. The Government has no plans for the early closure of schools.
Yesterday, the Taoiseach stated that the Minister for Defence was anxious to do the right thing for and by the Women of Honour group. How can the Government reconcile that statement with the Women of Honour saying that their request for legal representatives to be present was ignored until after the terms of reference were set? They describe the terms of reference as costly, self-serving and pointless and state that they had no involvement in their creation. I am deeply concerned. These women engaged with the Minister and the Department of Defence despite everything that had been their experience to that point. The deep fracture that is starting to emerge needs urgent action before the State starts revictimising victims.
I again ask the Government to take action in respect of the fuel rebate for hauliers. In France, hauliers receive 19 cent, while in Belgium it is 23.5 cent. There are many rural livelihoods at risk.
What actions will the Government take in respect of the outrageous letter from Ciarán Cuffe, MEP, in which he tells banks not to lend to young farmers? That, too, puts significant numbers of rural jobs and livelihoods at risk and it shows the indifference and disrespect towards rural Ireland and the lack of understanding as to how it operates.
I return to the issue of home care hours, raised by Deputy Kerrane on Leaders' Questions, and the HIQA report. I do not expect the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, to have read the 323-page report but the findings of the report jump off the page. There has to be a root-and-branch review; anything else is unacceptable. I refer to the risks of the unregulated situation. What I want to focus on is that all Deputies have received letters regarding hours being allocated but no one being available to provide them. What will the Government do in respect of those vulnerable people in the coming months while we wait for the cross-departmental review? Something must be done. Suggestions have been given. I ask the Minister to address that issue.
In the middle of September, a significant breakthrough was made on the issue of the pay and conditions of school secretaries and caretakers. The Department conceded that all school secretaries and caretakers should be placed on the public service clerical officer scale, bringing an end to the two-tier pay system. The deal will also do away with the requirement for most secretaries and caretakers to sign on during school breaks. The deal was welcomed at the time but it seems to have stalled. Can the Minister update the House on that situation?
I will do my best. I thank Deputy Clarke for her question. I heard a member of the Women of Honour group speaking on the "Saturday with Katie Hannon" radio programme last Saturday. There was to be a further engagement with the Department of Defence. I am sure the Minister, Deputy Coveney, will give an update on that. He is certainly satisfied that the terms of reference for the independent review are completely independent and that further steps beyond that are not being ruled out. I will ask him to revert to the Deputy in detail.
I thank Deputy Nolan for raising the issue of the fuel rebate. As she is aware, the Government increased it in the budget before last. That has been maintained. We acknowledge there is considerable pressure in the context of fuel prices, although I have observed the trend being reversed, thankfully. It is to be hoped that will continue in the coming period. The Government will keep the matter under review.
As regards Ciarán Cuffe, MEP, I am afraid I have no control over what he may or may not write in a letter.
I thank Deputy Connolly for raising the issue of home care. The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, will revert to her in respect of the HIQA report that is currently being considered. As I stated earlier, the Government recognises the issues here are serious. We want to see the services and we do not want the HSE to have to prioritise certain approved applicants over other approved applicants. That is the key issue.
On the issue raised by Deputy Carey, I welcome the progress we have made in respect of school secretaries in particular. I am not aware of a stall in progress recently but I will certainly look into it. From my perspective, we have provided the funding in budget 2022 for the implementation of that agreement next year. That is important. It is now about agreeing the finer details. I am not aware of any significant problem.