Wednesday, 23 February 2022
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
The world is looking on with increasing anxiety at the behaviour of Russia, the mounting prospect of war in Ukraine and the potential for horrific loss of life. The clear breach of international law by Russia cannot stand and sanctions are appropriate and absolutely necessary. There is a serious concern that these sanctions will impact directly on the soaring cost of living here at home. In fact, yesterday the Taoiseach said that in his view, sanctions will result in even further increases in the cost of energy at a time when people are to the pin of their collar paying huge gas, electricity and home heating oil bills. The Taoiseach also stated that there will be not further intervention by Government to tackle the cost of living crisis until the budget and that it will drive on with its carbon tax hike. That is not good enough. The Government must act to protect families and workers from the increased, and increasing, cost of energy. I ask the Taoiseach to confirm what he proposes to do about the further hike in energy prices that he has predicted.
I do not think it is enough to say that there is growing anxiety about the aggressive position of Russia. I think we should all be clear in this House that we all condemn the Russian aggression. We should use that language clearly and without equivocation. Yes, there will be repercussions from sanctions. That is the inescapable consequence of Russia's behaviour. We do not want to take economic sanctions. Nobody does. Those sanctions will have an impact. The crisis is having an impact on oil and gas prices and that will continue to be the case. That is the inevitable consequence of what is going on now. Governments all over the world will not have answers to everything here, because we are in a situation that we should never be in. We should not be in this situation. The Government has brought in €1.5 billion of supports through tax, social protection and other measures, such as a reduction in the cost of public transport, that will help people to deal with what is an escalating cost of living situation which we acknowledge.
Free Covid PCR tests for people are about to be axed. They will not be offered to members of the public under the age of 55, those who are boosted and do not fall into certain categories. This is coming into force next week, as I understand it. It means that people will have to pay between €70 and €90 for a private PCR test, which is extortionate. For many people, this will be a cost that they cannot afford. There were 3,294 positive PCR test results yesterday alone, without even factoring in negative results. Just adding up the cost of yesterday's positive test results, that would yield €300,000 on an average price, or nearly €2 million a week. That will absolutely disincentivise people who need tested from getting tested. Anybody who is vulnerable out there will certainly not do it because they will not be able to afford it. It is a real cost of living issue. Does the Government have any provision for those who cannot afford a private test to get one done publically? I ask the Taoiseach to reconsider the issue for those who will not be able to afford the cost of €70 to €90.
First, as has been said, we are moving from an emergency phase of the pandemic into the transitional phase. Subject to Government approval, it is intended that testing for SARS-CoV-2 will move from extensive case find and tracing of infection to reduce transmission towards a focus on mitigation of the severe impacts of Covid-19 for those most vulnerable to the severe effects of the disease and those with risk factors for severe disease who may benefit from specific interventions. During this transition, the HSE will develop an operational plan to meet future testing, tracing and surveillance objectives, which will address service needs through and beyond the transition phase. A key challenge will be to ensure availability of adequate capacity for a future surge, should that arise. Also, in terms of the issues the Deputy has raised, we are having a fortnightly meeting of Cabinet sub-committee on Covid next week. I hear that the Deputy is saying. We will give that consideration.
I want to ask the Taoiseach about the 20% cut in funding for rental inspections that the Government is implementing this year. This is despite the targets for rental inspections never being met. When I questioned the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage about it, he said that they are going to continue to rely on virtual inspections. Let us be clear, virtual inspections are not actually inspections. They involve a landlord filling out a self-assessment form and submitting some photos. There is no physical inspection. There is nothing independent about it. There is no ability for an inspector to smell damp or to see anything that a landlord may not want him or her to see. There is, in fact, no inspection at all. It is not an inspection. Why is the Government implementing a cut of 20% on inspections of rental properties? Why, as we emerge from Covid, is there continued reliance on these so-called virtual inspections, which are actually self-assessments? Why are they not being stopped altogether?
My understanding is that there is not a cut of that scale in terms of inspections. The Residential Tenancies Board has the resources to pursue breaches of the legislation in respect of protecting tenants. On the issue of resources-----
On the abandonment of PCR testing for the majority of the population, as has been said, the vast majority of people with symptoms who need a test will have to pay €90 privately to have it done. Many medically vulnerable groups, who have written and accounted for this in a letter to the Department, are worried about the abandonment of most measures like mask-wearing, testing and tracing. What new systems will be put in place to track the virus as fewer people are going to be tested for it? It has been reported in the papers that new systems will be put in place, but there is no explanation as to what those systems will be. Is the State proposing to abandon tracking the virus in its entirety and at all costs?
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. The Chief Medical Officer is very clear that we have to move to a different phase of the pandemic, that the wholesale testing and tracing regime will no longer apply during the transitionary period and that we have to embed into our existing public health system permanent responses and surveillance of the disease and other diseases. The Sentinel system, for example, which is a GP-based system, will be expanded. We already agreed last year to double the allocation of funding to public health in this country, leading to first-time consultant appointments and also a strengthening of the capacity within public health in terms of personnel. I understand the recruitment has gone well in respect of that. That whole public health system will be key in the surveillance and monitoring of diseases as we go forward.
Kifca McNamee is a woman from County Meath who is in her early 40s. She has a neurodegenerative disorder. She was living independently in her own home. Like many others, she caught Covid and was brought into hospital. Instead of being discharged from hospital, she was given no care package and had to remain in hospital. She was not on her own. Information that I have received has shown that there are 536 people who have been clinically discharged from hospital but who remain in hospital. Some of them have been there for up to 18 months. After a number of months, Kifca was transferred to a nursing home. There she resides with people who are 40 years her senior. She cannot get back to her own home because there is no care package available for her. We were told to find the staff and we did. Now, we are being told that the funding is not available. Kifca is being excluded from normal society because of a lack of funding being made available. Will the Government help to ensure that a care package is in place for her so that she can rejoin life?
I thank the Deputy for his question. The current budget for home care support for this year is €666 million, with 5 million extra home care hours being provided. Last year, we delivered 2.9 million more hours on the previous year to 55,000 people. If the Deputy sends me the specifics on the case to which he referred, we will look into it. The difficulty that we are facing currently is that although we have the funding, there are approximately 5,000 people waiting for supports because there are challenges with staffing issues.
The strategic workforce planning group will hold its first meeting next week, and we are trying to address these issues. If the Deputy sends me the details of this issue, I will have a look at it.
A perfect storm has blown up around the crisis in the price of oil. We are told diesel could go to €2.25 a litre and petrol to €2.40. Given the Russian situation, what alternatives are there if anything happens to that supply of Russian gas? How many days worth of oil are stored in this country? Will the Government reconsider the closure of the peat plants in the midlands, and reconsider the liquified natural gas, LNG, plant, for instance, that would provide an alternative to the gas line that is coming in? The Government needs to look at other areas because we cannot just blindfoldedly sleepwalk into this crisis. People have to try to live and businesses have to thrive. It is a perfect storm, as the Taoiseach is aware. We can talk about sanctions on Russia, but if it stops the supply of oil, where are we? What stores do we have? Will the Government consider these alternatives, which makes a lot of sense? Will it reopen those stations and have them viable and working?
First, Government officials have been meeting and co-ordinating in respect of the Russia-Ukraine crisis in terms of contingency planning on a number of fronts in the context of potential repercussions from the escalation of the crisis and the resulting impact on fuel supplies, cost and so forth. In terms of peat, that was not a Government decision. The courts decided what was going on was not legally valid or correct.
Tomorrow, school secretaries and caretakers represented by the Fórsa trade union will return to talks at the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, regarding pay and pension arrangements for grant-funded positions. These protracted talks continue despite the Tánaiste stating in this Chamber in the first months of the Government that it was the objective of the Government to regularise employment terms, conditions and pension rights for school secretaries. I expect I will get the stock reply about letting the process run its course, but the stumbling block to a settlement is the obvious intransigence on the part of the two Ministers involved in the talks. Will the Taoiseach appeal to the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy McGrath, directly to settle this now along the lines contained in the Fianna Fail election manifesto which stated that it is manifestly unfair that two people doing the same job with the same qualifications and to the same standard should be on vastly different wages? Alternatively, does he endorse the continued delay which is characteristic of the Ministers who are captured by the Departments they supposedly lead?
First, I assure the Deputy that the Minister, Deputy Foley, wants this resolved and is anxious and supportive of the talks process. The Minister, Deputy McGrath, wants it resolved also. Both of them have given this considerable momentum since the formation of the Government. As I said to the Deputy or another Member who raised the issue last week, there have been intensive discussions at the WRC from September of last year. Progress was made. The Department has moved to shift the pay rates of school secretaries to a scale that is aligned with the clerical officer grade 3 pay scale on a pro ratabasis according to a secretary's current working pattern. The Department has also offered to improve the conditions for school secretaries with regard to sick leave, annual leave and maternity provisions. Further dialogue continues to take place. There was a meeting on 26 January and there is a further meeting tomorrow that is the result of the last meeting and reflections on that. I hope we can get this sorted.
I refer to the commitment on page 47 of the programme for Government in respect of children's health. The school dental scheme in County Laois has collapsed. The dental treatment services scheme, DTSS, for adult medical card patients has collapsed. There are no dentists in the county providing this service or who will take on new clients, so the dental scheme in the county is non-existent. The reply to a parliamentary question on the DTSS confirms that no dentists are willing to take it on. The reply to a parliamentary question on the schools scheme confirms that is non-existent. There are boys and girls of 16 or 17 years of age who have never seen a dentist. The Taoiseach saw a dentist when he was going to school, as did I. We all saw a dentist when we were in second class or third class. I raised this issue with the then Minister for Health and now Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, eight or nine years ago as this issue was developing and he told me they should privatise the whole thing.
The budget is there. I take the Deputy's point but there are negotiations going on. We have to get value for the taxpayer but we do have to get a service for the public as well. Those talks are continuing and they need to be brought to a resolution.
I raise the issue of the walk-in facility that was provided by National Driver Licence Service, NDLS, for people getting their driving licence. Before the pandemic, a walk-in service was operating in parallel with the appointments system for many years. Understandably, there was a change during the pandemic. However, despite the reopening of much of society, I understand the walk-in option is not available for people who want to get a driving licence. Anyone getting a driving licence must book an appointment online only. That is presenting a real difficulty for those who are not comfortable or managing online but want to maintain their independence, those who do not have broadband, and those who just want to deal with a person. It is also an issue for newly qualified drivers who, after passing the test, want to get to the NDLS office and get their application started right away. Can the walk-in service be reopened to give people the widest opportunity possible to get their driving licence?
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. He tends to be very alert to these issues on the ground, as I know from previous questions he has asked. At the moment, across the NDLS front office network there are approximately 76,220 appointment slots in total across a six-week period. Of these, 43,715 are booked, with the remaining slots available. Nearly 30,000 slots are available to be booked. A person who is late for an appointment can always be accommodated and so on. The Deputy is right about Covid restrictions. The walk-in service was suspended. In 2021, a replacement NDLS front office service was procured, and then it was decided by the Road Safety Authority to provide the service on the basis of appointments only. It believes that an appointment-only service manages queues, gives certainty to customers and prevents overcrowding and long waits. The growth of the NDLS online service now accounts for 40% of its customers. I will relay the Deputy's concerns.
I previously raised in the Dáil the issue of the funnelling of €118 billion through the International Financial Services Centre, IFSC, by 106 Russian-linked shell companies availing of section 110 of the tax code. These shell companies pay no tax and have no employees. I raised this issue not once, not twice, but three times with the Government. I raised it in the Chamber in September 2020, I raised it with the Minister in front of the finance committee on 6 May 2021, and I wrote to the Minister for Finance on 27 May 2021 but I got no response. What has been done since I raised this issue in September 2020? Section 110 allows companies, and not just Russian companies, to use interest payments to write down their tax obligations to zero. When will this finally be phased out? It is clearly not in line with the current reforms in international tax regimes. I really want to know what has been done since I raised it in this Chamber in September 2020.
We are regulated by the European system as a country. In respect of the IFSC, special purpose vehicles have been established there that are used in securitisations and structured finance transactions.That includes services that----
They include making changes to tax laws in the Finance Acts. That has happened. Last year, significant changes were made to anti-money laundering legislation. The Finance Act 2021 saw the completion of our transposition of the anti-tax-avoidance directive, which is ahead of many other member states across Europe. The Act also introduced the authorised OECD approach for the transfer pricing of branches and it contains the process of introducing new tax transparency measures-----
There are thousands upon thousands of properties around the country that are currently short-term rentals. Many of them would be far better used if they were available on the long-term rental market or, better still, available for purchase by first-time buyers. I want to ask the Taoiseach three things specifically. First, will the Government better resource local authorities to enforce the existing rules around short-term rentals? Right now, the local authorities seem to be toothless when it comes to enforcing the rules that are there.
These are all related, a Cheann Comhairle. Second, will the Government introduce a package of supports for first-time buyers to purchase such properties? Third, will the Government introduce an incentive package for owners of such properties to make them available for purchase by first-time buyers? This could literally bring thousands of new units onto the market for first-time buyers.
I agree with the broad principle that Airbnb and short-term lettings are injurious to the housing market. Housing, as I have said consistently, is the number one issue. It is the biggest social crisis facing the country. We need to deal with it with all of the weapons at our disposal. That is what Housing for All is and is what the delivery mechanism at the heart of Government is about. It involves looking at every single opportunity to create housing supply and to get houses built. That may mean the rezoning of lands or the utilisation of State agency or local authority land. It means compact growth on old industrial sites within cities. All of that is clearly needed. There are a variety of incentives there and first-time buyers have a range of supports now through help-to-buy and the shared equity facility which will come on stream. The issue is that we need to get more houses built and the local authorities need to enforce and to engage on that.
Shannon Airport has received US customs and immigration pre-clearance for business passengers and for all passengers, in fact, going into the United States. At the moment one can fly by private jet into 230 airports in the United States. There is the potential to land at 5,000 airports if we could address a US Department of Agriculture regulation which stipulates that food waste on the plane must be incinerated at the other end. This is a very convoluted regulation. That regulation was being eased in 2018 in the last days of the Trump Presidency. I ask the Taoiseach to take it up with President Biden on St. Patrick’s Day. I am unsure if the Taoiseach has grasped this question.
With the indulgence of the Ceann Comhairle for ten seconds, an agricultural rule in the United States means that food waste on a plane has to be taken off and incinerated when it leaves Ireland. An easing of this restriction was proposed and it was almost over the line during the final days of the Trump Presidency. It is now being pulled back. The Taoiseach might take this issue up with President Biden. It would allow us to get from 230 destinations in the United States to 5,000 airports. We would love that for Shannon Airport.
I genuinely admire the Deputy’s advocacy for Shannon Airport on a consistent basis. I will investigate that to see what the issue is. I am not quite clear at this stage whether it will make the agenda in any potential meeting with President Biden.
I want to raise the issue of broadband roll-out with the Taoiseach. This is critical infrastructure for homes and businesses across Roscommon, Galway and many rural areas across the State. We know that the target for National Broadband Ireland, NBI, for 2021 was reduced from 115,000 premises to 60,000. Both targets have been missed by a mile. We know that 34,500 premises were completed by the end of last year. There are no penalties built in when milestones are missed, unfortunately. Clearly, there is a real issue here when just over 34,000 premises were connected last year. I know that Covid-19 has been used as a reason. However, another telecommunications company, Eir, did not miss its targets last year and in fact it exceeded them. There is a commitment in the programme for Government to accelerate the roll-out. Can the Taoiseach tell me what the target is for this year? Will what was missed last year be caught up on? Where are we at now in broadband roll-out for homes and businesses across rural communities where it is so badly needed and overdue?
The roll-out of the contract that was agreed with NBI some years ago continues. My understanding is that approximately 6.7 million m of fibre cable have been installed across the length and breadth of Ireland. Some 54,000 premises are currently ready for service across 22 counties. This means that homeowners, businesses and farms can now order and pre-order through a retail service provider to connect to a high-speed National Broadband Plan, NBP, network. NBI has advised that as of 11 February, over 157,000 premises have been constructed or are under construction. This demonstrates that the project is reaching scale. The budget allocated approximately €225 million to the roll-out of the NBP. That is a very significant investment in the plan. On the specifics that the Deputy has raised, I will return to her after talking to the Minister in respect of them.
One of the actions under Housing for All involves reviewing the income eligibility for social housing. When will that be brought forward? I put a proposal to the Government and to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on the basis that we have seen no increase in the income limits for nearly 11 years now. At the time, in April 2011, there was an increase of €5,000, which was based around and was very similar to the average industrial wage. The average industrial wage has gone up by about 20%. I have put a proposal that at a minimum, we should see an increase of €5,000 in all of the individual bands across the country. Such an increase - of 20% - would be in keeping with the increase in the average industrial wage.
Second, we should see a 20% increase for each additional household member from 5% to 6% with the cap going from 10% to 12%. For each child, we should see an increase from 2.5% to 3%. That would have very significant benefits for people on the housing list, as well as for the housing assistance payment scheme, the incremental tenant purchase scheme and the tenant purchase scheme. When will this happen and does the Taoiseach agree with my proposal?
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. I am aware that the matter has been under review by the Minister along with other issues relating to local authority tenancies. There is a broad range of issues there. I will relay the Deputy’s points to the Minister along with the Deputy’s specific recommendations.
Last Friday, I spent most of the day with a family staging a sit-in at South Dublin County Council. Emmanuel Chrisenoch and his family felt that they had no alternative. In their council house in Tallaght they have suffered eight years of repeated verbal and physical assaults with a clear racial element. For example, the N-word was graffitied on their wall. It culminated in a home invasion in January which saw their door being smashed in with a hammer and attackers being armed with a knife. They were very lucky to escape without serious injury. The council boarded their house up and since then they have been living in a church. The landlord of the church has since said that they have to leave so they have nowhere to go. The problem is that the council is saying that they should go back to their existing council home, which is boarded up, even though they feel with very good reason that their lives would be in danger if they did so. The question is whether the Government can intervene with the council and encourage it to see sense on this issue.
That is clearly a matter for the local authority which should deal with it in a sympathetic, human way. In situations like that in other local authorities, people are rehoused in a different location, particularly if the house is boarded up. We cannot intervene in every individual housing allocation. I do not know the full background, but I think the council should act appropriately in this regard and the family should be rehoused.
Page 119 of the programme for Government commits that the State will become "closer and more responsive to citizens and their needs". Like Deputy Aindrias Moynihan earlier, I am concerned at the proposal to close all of the national driving licence centres around the country, thus putting all those people who are not capable of operating online, or who choose not to do so, into an invidious position where they will not be able to renew or source a driver’s licence. Is it Government policy to strip out services in the regions throughout the country? Based on the Taoiseach’s answer to Deputy Moynihan, I must say I am concerned that the Government in its job has become little more than the communications and PR wing of State agencies such as the Road Safety Authority, RSA. Will the Taoiseach commit to re-establishing this walk-in service for the elderly and vulnerable of the country or, at a minimum, will he direct the RSA to empower all post offices throughout the country to offer these walk-in services to people?
No, but I just want to make the point. We are not a PR agency for it or anything like that. This House legislated for and created that body on a statutory footing to reduce deaths and accidents on our roads and that has been a spectacular success, if one looks at what has happened.
I know. I have answered the question. I will make a further point. I will communicate to the RSA what Deputies Moynihan and MacSharry have said. I do not have the reply here with me but my recollection is clearly that it has moved to an appointments-based system. It is saying to the public that it will be doing this work by appointment rather than everyone having to queue up. It is saying that it has approximately 70,000 appointments scheduled and some 40,000 have been taken up. About 30,000 appointments could, therefore, be taken up.
It appears that the difference here is whether we just allow people to walk in or whether people ring up in advance and ask for a time slot. I will talk to the Road Safety Authority about it and refer back to the Deputies.
I am sure the Taoiseach, as a former Minister for Education, will agree that efforts to open school facilities for wider community use have not succeeded. I hope he will also agree that we should take immediate action to tap into this potential. I recommend three specific things to the Taoiseach. First, the education and training boards, ETBs, should deliver a best-practice model. Second, all school patrons should be asked to develop a policy to accommodate the wider community, and that should be a factor that is considered when they are looking for improvements or extensions. Third, Departments across the Government should seek to develop the campus concept as a way of utilising lands that are often in patronage ownership. They have to be tapped for wider community use.
I do not disagree. It has always been the bane of politicians' lives that they could not get a pitch or access to a hall, particularly in State-owned schools such as the ETB schools, formerly vocational education committee schools. I was struck by the number of school and club partnerships in the recent sport applications for funding that got funding from the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. That is the way to go. Rather than having two separate sports halls, pitches or whatever adjacent to each other, there should be joint initiatives on sport. I remember a long time ago when a special plea was made to me for a full-size basketball hall in Coláiste na Sceilge as opposed to the Department's view of a physical education hall, which was much smaller. The Kerry representatives at the time made a very effective appeal and the result was that Kerry won one or two All-Ireland titles as a result. I agree 100% with the Deputy.