Dáil debates

Thursday, 16 December 2021

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

 

12:00 pm

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Today the HSE is to publish the executive summary of the long-awaited Brandon report into abuse at St. Joseph's Community Hospital in Stranorlar, County Donegal. My colleague, Deputy Doherty, among others, has been calling for the full report to be published. It has taken too long to get to this point. It has been a long and harrowing road for the families of those who suffered the most horrendous abuse. They hoped that this report would finally give them the answers they have been waiting on for years.

We now know that more than 100 occurrences of sexually inappropriate behaviour were carried out by one resident who has been given the pseudonym "Brandon" in the report and that there were 18 victims. We know that Brandon was moved from time to time but while such moves gave respite to victims and staff in one area, they allowed Brandon to carry on abusing new victims in the area to which he was moved. This was the most awful of situations. These victims were the most vulnerable in our society. They were non-verbal and placed all of their trust in centre and the HSE to protect them. That obviously did not happen. Those victims were failed. After the bravery of a whistleblower and after the reports to HIQA and An Garda Síochána, the individual identified as Brandon was eventually isolated and the abuse stopped.

This can never, ever be allowed to happen again. Even after all of this and despite public calls for the publication of the report, the full report is still not being published. The executive summary, while detailed, is still not the full report. The families and the public need to know all of the facts. Why continue to drag this out? The families and the public deserve the full truth. To properly protect our most vulnerable patients going forward, we need to learn from the mistakes here. The executive summary is not enough to do that. There are continuing questions for the HSE. The executive summary raises questions regarding the management and leadership of the HSE during this period.

I am also annoyed that the publication of the executive summary has come on the last day of this Dáil term. Given the gravity of what is contained therein, sufficient time must be allocated in the Dáil to debate the report and its findings in full. Will the Government press the HSE to publish the full report? I am sure that the Tánaiste will agree that there needs to be accountability for the failures in how all of this was managed. Given the seriousness of the issues, will he commit to providing time to debate this report in full at the first opportunity when the Dáil resumes in the new year?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue today. I am very conscious that in discussing this matter, there are families who have been deeply impacted and who are deeply hurting. Anyone who has read or listened to the reports on the issue is going to be shocked and upset by what has happened. Certainly, when I read about it, I was horrified that this could have happened. I even felt disbelief that something like this could happen and continue to happen for a period of time. All of our thoughts, in the first instance, are with the individuals and families affected. I cannot begin to imagine what they have been going through this morning and in the years gone by.

The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Rabbitte, who is responsible for disability services met with HSE officials on Tuesday to discuss the publication of the Brandon report. The HSE informed her that it intends to publish the executive summary of the Brandon report today. They also informed her that it is communicating with the families of those directly impacted who were due to receive the executive summary yesterday in advance of wider publication. With regard to the full report, the Minister of State is seeking advice from the Attorney General as to whether she can publish it either fully or in redacted form. At the moment the HSE is saying that is not possible but the Minister of State is not accepting that at this point in time. She is seeking advice from the Attorney General as to whether she can publish it in full or if not in full, at least in redacted form. The HSE has confirmed that it has put some help in place to help families during what will be a very difficult time for them and to answer any queries they may have. Families have been contacted by psychology or social work staff who have been known to them since 2018. A contact phone number has been provided to families, with any calls being answered by a psychologist.

The safety and protection of vulnerable people in the care of the State is paramount. The Government's first concern, and that of the Minister of State, is to ensure that the needs of the current residents are being prioritised. It is important that lessons are learned and that changes are made. The focus must be on ensuring that the findings and recommendations of the report are implemented. The HSE has assured the Minister of State that there are no ongoing risks to service users and that national governance and accountability structures to oversee the implementation of recommendations arising from the report are now in place.

A debate on this in the Dáil would be entirely appropriate, perhaps when we resume in the new year when Members have had a chance to read and consider the report. Of course, the allocation of time for a debate is a matter for the Business Committee.

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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The Dáil recently heard statements on the Grace case, which were deeply moving. That is the precedent and I welcome the fact that we will have statements on this report. As the Tánaiste said in his response, lessons have to be learned here. We need the full report to be published. We need all of the facts to be on the table and from that, hopefully, will come accountability and a framework to ensure that this never, ever happens again. The Tánaiste said that the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is working with the Attorney General on the publication of this report. It is critically important that the full report and not just the executive summary be provided to the public, that there is full accountability for what happened here and that lessons are learned. We can then engage in this House to try to make sure, collectively and on a cross-party basis, that this never, ever happens again.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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As I mentioned, the Minister of State and the Government are keen to see the full report published. The HSE has taken a view that this cannot be done and that only the executive summary can be published, and that is being done today. The Minister of State is engaging with the Attorney General to see if it can be published. That is certainly our preference. If it cannot be published in full, for legal or other reasons, surely at least it could be published in redacted form, taking out sections or names to protect people's privacy and confidentiality if that is appropriate.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I am sure we can put this as the number one item on the agenda for a decision at the first meeting of the Business Committee after Christmas.

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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Mr. Mark Paul broke the story in The Irish Timesyesterday that a company called MML Holdings, which owns O'Flaherty Holdings, received €1.8 million in taxpayer funded wage subsidies in 2020. It made profits of nearly €10 million last year but here is the rub. It also paid out a dividend of almost exactly the same amount as subsidy to Hailstone Holdings, an offshore company in the Isle of Man tax haven. This is some coincidence.

These related companies ultimately flog Mercedes cars to well-heeled people across the country. The O'Flaherty family made a tidy profit last year while the people of Ireland picked up the bill for the wages of their workers; a bill paid for with the borrowings that future generations will have to pay.

This would make Boycie, the car dealer in "Only Fools and Horses", blush. We know from The Irish Times that Prometric and its related companies were at it too. This is a company the State uses to operate our driver theory tests. It paid out €1.25 million in dividends last year having received a total of approximately €1.5 million in wage subsidies to date. I hope the Tánaiste will agree that this is absolutely extraordinary.

The wage subsidy schemes that this House has supported have saved jobs and kept good businesses going but surely the scheme was never meant to line the pockets of big investors. Even Santa Clause would not be this generous. I can guarantee that this story does not end here. The Government is big on corporate welfare but it is not big on corporate obligations. The truth is the Government was warned that this abuse would happen.

From the get-go, the Labour Party and I have argued for strict social, economic and labour conditions to be attached to the schemes. We have said in the House that there should be no supports for companies registered in tax havens, for companies with enough cash to pay dividends or for companies that ignore recommendations from the WRC or the Labour Court. Other countries attached conditionality to ensure state aid would not go to companies registered in tax havens. France and Austria included dividend bans but no such strings were attached here. All we currently have are Revenue compliance checks. It is clear that companies that are, and were, profitable should be looking at whether they really need that support from the State. The Minister for Finance seems to agree with me.

We have called repeatedly for the EWSS to be transformed into a permanent short-time working scheme with conditions. We know that these schemes operate well to save jobs when the economy is in difficulty. Will the Tánaiste call on O'Flaherty Holdings and Prometric to repay the pandemic supports that they obviously did not need? Will the Government now carry out a full audit of the payments made to companies to find out if other companies profited from wage subsidy schemes in this way? Because we are at risk of losing tens of thousands of jobs next year, will the Government put in place a permanent revised short-time working scheme with conditions as I have consistently advised?

12:10 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I caution the Deputy. We need to be careful about making allegations certainly against named families, even though they may be beneficial owners of companies or corporations. We just need to tread warily, please.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Cognisant of what the Ceann Comhairle said, I am not going to make any particular remark about any particular company or any particular individual. What I can say in the round is that it is my view that companies that have recorded substantial profits this year or are in the position to pay substantial dividends should refund the money they received under the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS. A number of companies have done so. They received the money in good faith. They did not know how hard they would be hit by the pandemic. The EWSS allowed them to keep on staff that they might otherwise have let go or put on short time. However, if it turned out that the year was a good one for the company and it made substantial profits and could pay its shareholders a dividend and did not really need the wage subsidy money, then I think that money should be repaid. That is the view of the Government as well.

Both the wage subsidy scheme and the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, were organised and designed in a hurry. We needed to get money out to workers and businesses quickly. We always knew that some people would not necessarily need the money. That applied to both schemes. However, particularly when it comes to the wage subsidy scheme, where substantial profits are made by companies or they find themselves in a position to pay dividends, it is appropriate they should return that cash to the taxpayer. Some companies have done that, in fairness. Others have not and they should.

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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I agree but the type of behaviour I outlined from corporate entities, which is on the record - and I believe there may be more revelations in coming days - should have been made unlawful in the first place as has been the case in Austria and some other countries against which we like to compare ourselves. No conditionality whatsoever was attached to the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS. I can understand that this scheme, in particular, was introduced in a rush. It was an urgent scheme and a good one to keep people close to their employers and keep people in work. However, the lesson should have been applied to the operation of the EWSS.

Will the Tánaiste discuss with Revenue the need to properly audit companies that have benefited from the scheme? It is unfortunate that all we can do in this House, because this behaviour is not unlawful, is plead with profitable companies to return this money to the taxpayer. That is not acceptable to me. We should learn lessons from the way that this scheme has operated.

I wish the Tánaiste, Matt and his family a very happy Christmas. I hope that he gets to enjoy a break.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy. More than €6.6 billion has been provided under the EWSS comprising of direct subsidy payments of €5.729 billion to companies and PRSI forgone of just under €1 billion. It has helped to protect approximately 700,000 jobs in 60,000 companies. The legislation incorporates important safeguards to ensure that it is correctly claimed by companies. Revenue is undertaking assurance checks on the scheme to ensure that conditions have been met and will continue to do so.

Qualification for EWSS is based on the employer demonstrating that his or her business experienced a 30% reduction in turnover or orders during a specific period and that this was caused as a consequence of disruption related to the pandemic. Revenue is rigorous in its structured programme of checks to ensure the eligibility of businesses for subsidy payments under the scheme and will pursue any instances where a business fails to qualify for the scheme, whatever the reason.

While the question of what dividends a company may or may not be in a position to pay shareholders is a matter outside the current legislative remit of the scheme, the Minister for Finance wants it noted that some companies have voluntarily repaid some or all the subsidy received. Revenue has put in place procedures for the repayment of wage subsidies where businesses wish to make them.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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The public health measures that have been introduced out of concerns about Omicron, social gathering at Christmas and so on have once again impacted on particular groups of workers and sectors in our society in their ability to work at all or their ability to earn a sustainable living. While the Government has been quite laissez-faire, as has rightly just been referred to in many ways, in giving out EWSS support and other Covid support schemes, certain groups who have been hit time and again, longest, hardest and most repeatedly are being frustrated in applying for or simply denied the income supports under the PUP that the Government said it was reintroducing over the past few weeks. People are encountering major difficulties in securing the payment or being flat-out denied it. They are, once again, jobbing musicians, entertainers and performers, taxi drivers and people in the night-time economy. People in those categories are simply being refused the PUP on the spurious basis that there is no record of four weeks' PRSI contributions. These people do their tax returns at the end of the year and could not possibly show that. They would have to go to an accountant to get it. People are being given lower PUP payments than they were given in March 2020. They are being told they must come to appointments but they may not be able to get those appointments before Christmas. They are people working in exactly the same job doing exactly the same kind of work are being given different payments or none, or they are being told they will be paid but not when and how much.

This is completely unfair. This is the Government being Scrooge in respect of the people most affected by the public health measures in the teeth of Christmas. I will give some examples. Daniel is a taxi driver who applied for the PUP. He was told to come in for an interview but he must also get a PSC card and may not get his interview before Christmas. John is a musician. He rang that PUP helpline this morning. The helpline could not clarify if he was being reinstated on the PUP or at what rate it would be paid at. Another taxi driver is self-employed. He applied for the PUP on 7 December and has had no word from the Department of Social Protection. It is less than two weeks to Christmas. Yesterday he spent eight hours on a taxi rank and earned only €16.80. He had to keep their car going to keep warm. Shane is a musician and self-employed. Work had not returned to a level on which he could survive on without support. He had loads of gigs booked for the Christmas period that are all completely gone. He was refused the PUP.

I could go on through the list. This is just not fair. In the teeth of Christmas, I appeal to the Government to instruct the Department of Social Protection to go back to the regime we had in March 2020 whereby people in these sectors who apply for the PUP are given it at the March 2020 rate and are not asked to jump through multiple hoops or denied that support before Christmas.

12:20 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy. I am sorry to hear those stories. I know so many people who work in the night-time economy and they had been looking forward to a very different Christmas one where they could do their job, practise their art and maybe make a little bit of money for Christmas and for the year ahead. They now find themselves in a very difficult position. We want to make sure those financial supports are in place for the people in the night-time economy and the experience economy who are going to need them because we are going to need them back whenever we get over this Omicron wave. If the Deputy wants to pass on those details to me later on or directly to my office, I will make sure the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, gets them. I will speak to her today and see if there are any particular flexibilities we can reintroduce because we do not want to leave people without any money for Christmas, for all the reasons I think Members will understand.

As the Deputy will be aware, the PUP has been reopened on a limited basis for individuals, including self-employed people who work in the night-time economy and taxi drivers, who lose their employment on or after Tuesday, 7 December because of the additional public health restrictions. These measures have a negative impact on sectors like hospitality, the night-time economy, the arts and entertainment sectors, and the loss of employment must be linked to those new restrictions. Individuals, including taxi drivers, who satisfy the criteria are eligible for the PUP. The eligibility for the PUP includes self-employed people but they must have been a self-employed PRSI contributor and checks to ensure that are carried out by the Department. I am told the majority of claims are processed quickly and without the need for engagement with the customer before payment commences. The Department says it is not aware of any particular problems in processing claims from any particular sector. There is flexibility provided to self-employed people receiving the PUP to take up occasional or intermittent work and retain their PUP. This measure has assisted people to maintain their business during the pandemic and provides that a person can earn up to €960 from self-employment over an eight-week period without losing his or her PUP. In total, 55,300 such payments are being issued this week, of which 3,800 represent new applications received in the past week as a result of the restrictions introduced on 7 December.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I notice the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media coming into the Chamber. As she is present, jobbing musicians, entertainers and performers on the ground have been appealing for a meeting with her to explain the particular difficulties they are facing, including the anomalies, inconsistencies and refusals.

Photo of Catherine MartinCatherine Martin (Dublin Rathdown, Green Party)
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That is happening.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Okay. I talked to them this morning and they still felt there was no movement. Many of them are being denied. Whatever the Department is telling the Tánaiste, I tell him they are being refused on spurious grounds around PRSI contributions that they could not possibly show. If their gigs have collapsed for December, they are being asked in for an interview and being told they must prove they had those gigs. That means going around to every single venue and getting letters saying there was to be a gig and it has been cancelled. How does someone prove that with a week to go until Christmas?

There are also people who are on a lower payment because their PUP was phased down. Somebody else who comes in after 7 December can get the €350 payment, if he or she can get it. They are in the exact same situation but one person is getting €350 and another €203. It is cruelly unfair. We are asking for consistency and for the Department not to put hoops in front of people in advance of Christmas. The Government should take the same attitude the Tánaiste just displayed towards the EWSS, that is, get the money out first and tie up the anomalies later.

Will the Minster for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media please meet the Music and Entertainment Society of Ireland, MEAI, before Christmas to discuss the problems musicians and entertainers are facing?

Photo of Catherine MartinCatherine Martin (Dublin Rathdown, Green Party)
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I met its representatives last week and departmental officials met them on Monday.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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They are telling me there has been no movement.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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There needs to be some controls and some checks and balances.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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There are none on the EWSS.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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This is ultimately taxpayers' money. As the Deputy will know from the published reports, there have been very large overpayments of the PUP and there has also been fraud related to it. This is taxpayers' money and we must ensure we minimise that. Among the checks and controls is asking people to show evidence that they were self-employed. Anyone who is self-employed makes PRSI class S contributions and should be able to show that-----

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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At the end of the year.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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-----but I hear what the Deputy is saying. There are people who work in the night-time economy and who have had the devastating news in the past few weeks that that sector of the economy is being shut down again until we do not know when. We need to make sure they get the money they need to get through Christmas and thereafter. I will certainly take this up with the Minster, Deputy Humphreys. Again, if the Deputy wants to pass on those individual instances to my office I will ensure she gets them.

Photo of Michael FitzmauriceMichael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I wish the Ceann Comhairle and everyone else a happy Christmas.

Cappagh National Orthopaedic Hospital put a plan in place for orthopaedic surgery, especially for children with scoliosis, spina bifida and other conditions. The new plan put in place by Mr. Connor Green and his team estimates they will be able to increase output by approximately 400%. There are 100 children on their waiting list. I heard the Tánaiste and the previous Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, say in the House and in many an interview that they were going to solve this problem once and for all. That was three, four, five and six years ago. There are children who have been waiting for three, four and five years in acute pain. We have the HSE draft plan for 2022. In fairness to the current Minister of Health, he said changes can be made as it is a draft plan. Will the Government make sure funding is given to take those children out of the pain and misery they have endured over the past three, four and five years?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy. On behalf of the Government, I reiterate that reducing the scoliosis waiting list and the spinal surgery waiting list is a priority for Government. It is important to say the HSE's service plan for 2022 has not yet been approved or published. The HSE is aware of the level of priority the Government, and indeed all parties, attach to this issue. The Minister for Health will shortly bring the service plan to Government for approval. The plan will include very significant investment in 2022 to increase scoliosis surgery capacity at Cappagh Kids, Temple Street and Crumlin hospitals.

The HSE has received a number of specific proposals from Children's Health Ireland on scoliosis and will be in a position to fund these proposals. The full details will be confirmed in the service plan when it is published. The Minister recently met scoliosis clinicians and patient advocates to discuss this with them, and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, wished me to re-emphasise that he is allocating €22.2 billion next year for health. That is the largest budget for health in the history of the State. It is probably 50% greater than it was only a few years ago. However, as I have learned in trying to deal with that issue, both as Minister for Health and as Taoiseach, it is not just about money. The money will be allocated for these developments in these three hospitals but as we will all find out, it is not just a matter of money. Sadly, it is much more complicated than that.

Photo of Michael FitzmauriceMichael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I thank the Tánaiste for his reply. If the HSE and successive Governments have been aware of the situation over the past number of years, as they should have been, it is very unusual the HSE would leave this out of a draft plan. The Tánaiste is correct that money does not always solve everything but if somebody like Mr. Green and his team put a draft plan together to increase output by 400% then surely they are held to account if that is not done. I ask that the Tánaiste and the Minister for Health to make sure the funding is put in there. It is not just about one part of the country. There are affected children waiting right around the country. If we can resolve this issue by taking them out of pain with this proposal, and there are 100 on the Cappagh list alone, I urge the Tánaiste and the Minister to put the funding in place to resolve it.

12:30 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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If this was simply a matter of money, political will or compassion, it would have been solved a long time ago. I know of the major efforts that have been made in recent years to improve the situation, whether it is sending children to Germany and England, or new theatres and additional funding. There are periods during which it has been improved, and waiting lists have been shortened, but then things go backwards again. That is, unfortunately, the problem and the situation we have been in for a very long time. The difficulty often relates to finding skilled medical and non-medical staff willing to do this work and to continue to do it for years on end. That has also been a real difficulty.

As I said, the HSE service plan is only in draft form. I can confirm it will include very significant investment to increase scoliosis surgeries at Cappagh National Orthopaedic Hospital and the Children's Health Ireland hospitals at Temple Street and Crumlin. I hope the HSE and those hospitals are able to spend that money next year because they will have it.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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This is quite a remarkable event. It is the second time this week that we have concluded Leaders' Questions in the allocated time. Before proceeding to Questions on Promised Legislation, I will avail of the opportunity, since this is the last sitting of 2021 and it has been an inordinately difficult and challenging year for many of the people whom we have the great privilege to represent, to thank the Taoiseach, Tánaiste, members of the Government, leaders of the Opposition and all the Members for their unfailing courtesy and co-operation in the course of the year. I urge them all to take some downtime and time off during Christmas. Maybe those Deputies who never turn off their phones when they come to the Chamber might consider turning them off for a few hours over Christmas before they have to be surgically removed.

On behalf of Members, I extend our gratitude and respect to the Clerk of the Dáil and his Clerk Assistant, Elaine Gunn, who is with us in the Chamber, and to all the members of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service who are unfailingly helpful and supportive to us. I also thank Teresa Doolan, who is doing a superb job as Superintendent of the Houses, and all her staff of ushers who are unfailingly helpful and courteous. I cannot end without mentioning Darren Brady and John Walsh, their catering section team - I may make more use of the catering section than many Members - and the inimitable Julie Lyons. They deliver a fantastic service to all Members.

I acknowledge the work done by the press corps in the course of the year and the great support we all get from the political staff who work in the Houses. Guím Nollaig shona bheannaithe oraibh ar fad.