Wednesday, 30 March 2022
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
Three weeks ago, the High Court found that the HSE was in breach of the Disability Act 2005 with regard to children's right to an assessment of need. It found that the HSE was cutting corners and depriving children of their rights. It also found that, as has been accepted by the head of the HSE, since 2014, the HSE had not been providing the Minister for Health with the statutory reports it is legally obliged to provide setting out the aggregate needs of all of the children and the services that are needed so that the HSE and Minister can plan. Right across the board, the HSE has been in breach of the law. Some HSE officials have indicated that they want a review of the Act to dilute the rights of children with regard to assessments of need. Will the Taoiseach make sure there is no diminution of the rights of children in any review of the Act? We need to resource the services to make sure children get their assessments of need and the services they need.
The HSE accepts the judgment in the recent High Court case and will not be appealing it. This is in line with the approach advised by the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, in response to this particular case. Along with other Ministers at the time, I was involved in producing the Disability Act 2005. The Act has not been overly used since then because of its implications. It has not been delivered on to the degree anticipated at the time. From my perspective, I do not anticipate or want any diminution of the rights of children in this respect. The issue now is to get on with the Act.
I welcome the news from the Government today with regard to sick pay but its proposals do not go far enough. We in the Labour Party have been calling for a more robust and effective sick pay scheme for some time now. My colleague Senator Sherlock has pointed out that the scheme proposed by the Government will not address the real needs of many of those who are in the most vulnerable categories of work. We had called for a proper effective sick pay scheme in September 2020 on foot of appeals from representatives of those working in meat plants and because we saw that employees in the childcare and early years sector were unable to access sick pay in the context of the Covid pandemic. Our concern now is that the Government's proposal does not represent a right to access sick pay from the start of employment. In particular, seasonal workers and early years educators, such as those working in the early childhood care and education scheme, ECCE, who are employed for part of the year will not be covered because the scheme envisages a 13-week period before people are entitled to access. Will the Taoiseach change the scheme to ensure it covers all workers?
The decision taken by the Government yesterday to introduce the sick leave Bill 2021 was a very good one. This introduction was approved by the Cabinet yesterday. The Bill will legislate for a statutory sick pay scheme for all employees, to be phased in over a four-year period. It can be seen from the decisions taken yesterday, including the decisions to undertake the most radical reform of second level education and to introduce this sick pay scheme, the auto-enrolment pension scheme and other measures, that the Government continues to take significant decisions that are reforming and will improve workers' quality of life. This sick pay scheme will be paid by employers at a rate of 70% of an employee's wage subject to a daily maximum threshold of €110. There has been extensive consultation with employers and unions on these measures. It represents a very significant watershed.
There have been huge queues in Dublin Airport in recent days, resulting in people missing flights. These queues are being caused by a lack of staff to carry out security checks. The Dublin Airport Authority, DAA, is advertising for more security staff. The advertisement for these roles makes it clear that staff must be available to work 40 hours a week across a 24-7 roster. Employees must be available to work at weekends, on bank holidays, at night-time and early in the morning. However, the DAA is only guaranteeing 20 hours of work a week and pay of just €283 a week. The DAA is clearly engaging in a race to the bottom and driving down working conditions. This is directly impacting on passengers using the airport. Does the Taoiseach stand over these exploitative terms and conditions for full-time workers in an Irish semi-State company?
I thank the Deputy for raising the broader issue. The DAA is working extremely hard to try to deal with the delays in security checks at the airport. It recently recruited 100 new security staff and this should assist in alleviating the excessive queueing times in the coming period. The DAA works with social partners and through the various labour and employer-employee mechanisms with regard to work conditions and so on. I will certainly raise the issues the Deputy has raised with the DAA.
All things come to he who waits. Why did the Minister for Education decide to back the biggest change to the leaving certificate in the history of that examination and announce this change without consultation with teachers? Does the Taoiseach understand that teachers feel that the goodwill they extended in producing predicted grades as a pandemic measure is now being abused by his Government? Does he expect teachers to mark 40% of the new leaving certificate examinations without major increases in pay? In Cork city, Bruce College is advertising courses in seven leaving certificate subjects for €825. Its website adds, "Fees are non-refundable - no allowance for absenteeism." Private grind schools are milking students' anxiety after the Covid pandemic, which negatively affected their teaching hours. Do they now want to take money off students who are unable to attend their grind classes as a result of Covid?
I would be interested to hear the Taoiseach's comments on this.
The Deputy has been consistently attacking the leaving cert system over the past number of months. As soon as one of the most radical reforms of the senior cycle programme is announced, he is back in with a different tack, attacking it. Which side is he on? The reforms announced by the Minister are student centred. They have followed the most comprehensive consultation on reform of the leaving certificate by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, with all stakeholders. They will give greater breadth to the students by introducing new subjects: climate action and sustainable development; and drama, film and theatre studies. It facilitates students within the leaving cert applied and leaving certificate vocational programmes to have access to the established leaving certificate. It also introduces the assessment model.
Significant parts of the childcare sector are facing collapse at the moment. In response to a parliamentary question submitted by Aontú, we found out that 789 childcare providers have closed their doors since 2007, predominantly ECCE and small providers. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Government decimated provider income while shackling providers with massive debt. A total of 338 childcare providers closed during the pandemic. New core funding proposals have been made. These have been delayed for months and have shocked people as a result. The funding for ECCE providers, who account for nearly 50% of childcare providers, will be cut. The incomes of small providers will be slashed. All this is happening while that sector has experienced a cost-of-living increase of up to 70% in a decade. Since the new proposals have been made, 21 childcare businesses have closed, including two in Waterford in the last week. Will the Taoiseach step in?
The Government has stepped in. There has been a 141% increase in investment in early learning and care services between 2015 and 2021. There has been a corresponding increase in places which grew nationally by 60%. Thousands of additional new places have been funded in recent years. Between May and August of this year, there will be an additional €78 million investment in the sector to deliver transitional funding. There will be a new core funding stream from September, enabling developments to the national childcare scheme. As the Deputy knows, the Minister has work under way. Funding has been allocated to improve career pathways, and pay and conditions for those who work in the sector.
The Covid emergency powers are due to run out at midnight tomorrow. We are so used to the emergency legislation that we now take it for granted. I have a petition signed by 3,000 people in the last few days calling for them to be ended. We want them ended. I understand they are to end. I have asked parliamentary questions but have not been told. Are they ending tomorrow night, Thursday, 31 March, or not? The Taoiseach will know that the following day is April fool's day. We need a straight answer from him now. Will they be finished - finito - tomorrow night at midnight, as was promised? Will they be gone? The Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, likes them. He told us one night that he has signed nearly 100 statutory instruments and different orders on top of the regulations. Will they be ended tomorrow night as was passed by this House?
On 28 February, public health measures fell, including the mandatory wearing of masks even though the public health advice was that we should maintain them on transport and in healthcare settings. We now have one of the most virulent Covid variants running rampant in our society with 1,600 patients in hospital, an increase of more than 40% in the past seven days. Last week, 5,200 staff were out sick with Covid. This week, according to Dr. Colm Henry, it is over 6,000. More hospitals are cancelling elective surgery which already has a serious backlog. Every Deputy has heard from constituents who are waiting. No masks are being worn on public transport. Has the Government discussed the increase in the number of people in our hospitals? If mask wearing cannot be made mandatory, could the Government not run an advertising campaign to encourage people wear masks on public transport even for four weeks?
That it has less virulence than other variants means is causing less serious illness. That creates a new difficulty for us in that we cannot justify the economic restrictions we had for a virus that is not translating into very serious illness, mortality or admissions into hospitals and particularly intensive care units. I acknowledge it is causing considerable disruption across society, particularly in the healthcare environment because if someone arrives in hospital with a different ailment and it transpires they have Covid, they need to be isolated which creates pressure on capacity. I do not have time to go through it all.
There are almost 1,600 Ukrainian people in County Clare, meaning that 1% of our county's population is now made up of Ukrainian nationals. Our arms are wide open and they are all welcome. Many supports have come from the Government in recent days, including English as an additional language, EAL, teachers and additional teaching posts in our schools. However, more is required and we need ancillary staff. I want to make a pitch for two positions that the Taoiseach might lead through at Cabinet level. First, we have fully qualified medical doctors from Ukraine. We should put one of them on duty, paid by the Government, to go to all these accommodation centres to help and support the Ukrainian population. The local GP services are not able to cater for this. Second, we need translators in the school environment for pastoral care and for home-school links. There is no position in the Department of Education at the moment for translators. We have them in abundance. We need to give them a defined role. I call on the Government to appoint a Ukrainian GP in Clare - possibly two of them - to do the circuit of accommodation centres and to appoint translators who can provide the vital home-school link for education to make this a success.
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. On all fronts how we are working in a co-ordinated way to provide services. Significant work has been done on the health side to provide a variety of services, PPS numbers, social protection and so on. We acknowledge that we need to provide access to schooling. In multiple ways we need to provide quality of life with good learning environments and above all access to healthcare. All the Deputy's suggestions will be considered and will feed into that process.
No one who lives in Lucan, as I do, can sign up as a new patient with a GP; their books are full. However, as the census will show, it is a rapidly growing area, home to not one but two strategic development zones. Despite Sláintecare, people cannot access their medical first port of call, the GP in their community. A constituent has been waiting for four years to get on a GP's books. Because she is a private patient, there is no support or intervention for her. Fourteen GPs in Lucan take medical card patients but it is not enough for our growing population. Last year 223 doctors began GP training. What policies will the Taoiseach introduce to keep them in Ireland and encourage them to practise in growing communities like Lucan?
Yes, indeed. I know the Minister for Health is working with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to see if we can produce additional places, as we did last year, particularly in the medical field. We need to create more opportunities for people to study medicine and we need to create more opportunities for graduates to become GPs. That is being worked on as we speak.
I raised this issue with the Tánaiste last week. University Hospital Letterkenny has a serious crisis. The representatives of nurses, doctors and paramedics have spoken about the impossible conditions they are being asked to work in. There is one nurse for every 20 patients. Some patients have been waiting between ten and 14 hours in ambulances outside the emergency department, including recently a 77-year-old man in a very serious condition. I am asking the Taoiseach, as I asked the Tánaiste, to ensure that the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, gets up to Donegal urgently to meet the organisations representing the staff, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, Fórsa, SIPTU, and meets the hospital management to address once and for all the health crisis in Donegal which has arisen due to neglect and underfunding.
I will certainly speak to the Minister for Health. We have already spoken to the HSE about the situation in Letterkenny and will continue to do so.
There is a problem at the moment in terms of what we discussed earlier with Deputy Joan Collins on the impact of the current wave of Covid on hospitals, particularly model two and model three hospitals, and so forth. First, we have the bed capacity issue in terms of isolation of patients who have Covid and then there is the egress because so many nursing homes and elderly care centres are now centres of outbreak and they cannot take in patients. I think more than 600 patients have been officially discharged from hospitals but cannot leave the hospitals because of the fact they cannot go into centres where there has been an outbreak. There are real challenges facing emergency departments. I acknowledge the point the Deputy made about Letterkenny.
I also respectfully ask the Government to help the pig industry through the prolonged crisis it is experiencing at present. I thank the Minister for meeting many of the pig farmers yesterday. There are 8,000 jobs in the pig industry. They are currently losing between €40 and €50 per pig. Feed has gone up from €270 a tonne to €430 a tonne, and they have been told it is going up a further €70 a tonne next week. There are pig farmers all over Kerry, at Killorglin, Causeway, McAuliffe’s and Knocknagoshel. We have the Roughty Valley pig operation on our own road, the Bog Road in Kilgarvan, which was set up in 1972. It has been run successfully by Christy Hussey and has been environmentally friendly for many years. This is on our own road, where my own father and I were born and reared. It would hurt us deeply.
I have been talking to the Minister about this. I want to make it very clear to the Deputy that we fully appreciate the very significant difficulties the pig industry is facing right now. These are normally enterprises that are viable and productive, they have done well and they create about 8,000 jobs in the economy. We want to do everything we possibly can to be of assistance during what is now a perfect storm for the industry due to a number of market issues, such as African swine flu, plus the war and the inflation of input costs. We acknowledge all of that. The Minister had an initial scheme which was funded up to €7 million and which allowed a maximum payment of €20,000. The Minister met with the groups yesterday to see what more we can do to try to bring an intermediate resolution of this crisis, so we can get through this period and remain intact when times get better.
I need to raise with the Taoiseach the length of time it takes to pay enhanced illness benefit, the payment that people switch onto if they are out of work when they have Covid. There are increased levels of Covid and of people being out of work, so there will be increased demand for the payment, one would expect. While some applications will be straightforward, for many others there is considerable delay. For example, if somebody already has a social welfare payment in the household, it creates a situation where there is an overlapping payment if somebody has to go out of work due to Covid and apply, and they can be waiting up to 12 weeks for a payment to come through. Clearly, it is the lowest income households that are being affected, and it is happening at a time when the rising cost of living is also hitting the very same households. Can the payment of these enhanced illness benefits be prioritised, particularly for those on the lowest incomes who are being hit?
I thank the Deputy for the specific nature of the question, which is on the button, as usual, in terms of the research the Deputy does on these issues. As he knows, due to the prevalence of the disease, the possibility of further variants emerging and an increase in the level of travel, the Government extended the scheme until 30 June. To date, a total of 484,941 people have received an enhanced illness benefit payment. There has been another increase in claims, particularly in the second half of March, with some 6,000 claims now being received daily. The majority of enhanced illness benefit claims are automatically processed. Where the required medical evidence is submitted with an application and the eligibility rules are met, 92% of applications were processed within a week in February. However, on the Deputy’s point, applications that require an officer to review to ensure eligibility for payment, or where the person is already in receipt of another social welfare payment, can take longer to process. Officials from the Department of Social Protection are working to clear all claims as quickly as possible, with additional resources being allocated to this work as a priority, the employment of temporary staff and system changes to increase automation within the process. There is an issue but work is being undertaken to deal with it.
Last night, Sinn Féin brought forward a motion that aims to protect children with disabilities. The Government did not oppose this motion. This is a tactic that the Government has been using for a lot of Sinn Féin motions. It will not oppose but it also will not support simply because it does not want to publicly vote against services for children with disabilities. The recent High Court ruling found that the HSE was in breach of the law by not providing children with disabilities with a comprehensive assessment of needs within the statutory six-month timeframe. Does the Taoiseach accept that this breach of law happened under his watch? Who will be held accountable? Can the Taoiseach give a guarantee that the Government will implement all of the actions in the Sinn Féin motion that it did not oppose last night?
It is the same question; it is the same issue. We have accepted the High Court decision. We brought in the Act, actually, and we are very committed to implementing it.
Today, Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, announced the preferred routes for rail and road for the M20. It is very welcome. I have two questions. TII is proposing bypasses of Banogue, Charleville, Buttevant and Mallow, and it is then proposing that it will be a choice between tier 1, the highest level of dual carriageway, or motorway on the route itself. TII advised me today there is no difference in the cost between a tier 1 dual carriageway and a motorway. I would like it to be a motorway as we will just get one opportunity. Is that something the Taoiseach would support? TII is going to design an environmental stage, and it is talking about two years to get through An Bord Pleanála. That needs to be brought forward as quickly as possible. We need that connection between our two great cities of Limerick and Cork.
I would think the preferred solution is one that consists of building a dual carriageway or motorway along the existing N20. This is good news. We have an awful habit in this country of turning good news into bad news very fast, and into the next controversy. The routes have now been selected. I am open-----
The Taoiseach will be familiar with the Educate Together secondary school in Cork. It now has 400 students and the first students are doing their leaving certificate this year, so the school is open about six years. During that six years, the school has been in two locations, neither of which is directly in the catchment area. It is currently based in Wellington Road. The Department spends about €80,000 to €90,000 a year on school transport bringing students to the current site. The Taoiseach might have seen the video doing the rounds, “A school of our own”. They want to know when the planning application for the next application is coming forward. It was supposed to happen towards the middle or end of last year and it has not happened. They urgently need a permanent site. Will the Taoiseach give a date for the planning application to be submitted? Obviously, it is then over to Cork City Council but, first, the planning application has to come from the Department and they have been waiting on that for some time.
I am happy to engage with the school in regard to the processing of this. I am well aware of the situation. We want to do this as quickly as we possibly can.
Last month, I raised with the Minister for Education an issue around school transport eligibility for families forced to move to temporary accommodation due to the continuing mica crisis in Donegal. The Minister committed to ensuring, as she put it, scheme flexibility in this regard, yet Bus Éireann, which administers the scheme, in reply to the same query said there can be no such flexibility. Which is it? Both answers cannot be true. To be honest, I am losing what little faith I have in the Minister. She previously and earnestly committed in this House to examining Donegal ETB’s submission for additional mental health resourcing in the context of mica. The ETB, in a letter to Donegal Deputies last week, described its disappointment and frustration and it viewed the lack of funds and resources offered as unacceptable.
I know the Taoiseach is going to Donegal this weekend so maybe he can bring good news and say the Department of Education will support the mental health of students involved in the mica crisis. That would be welcome to them.
I will pursue those two issues. I do not see why there cannot be flexibility in terms of school transport. Any child that is displaced and needs access to school should be provided for. In terms of the broad range of education and well-being supports, substantial resources have been made available in the past year to education to provide well-being supports and it should be within the capacity of ETBs to facilitate children in that situation.
I raise the issue of University Hospital Limerick, which I have done since I was elected in 2016 probably on a weekly basis through Questions of Promised Legislation, Topical Issues, priority questions and oral questions. There is no update or let up in the situation in the hospital. Eighty-six people are on trolleys today and 1,604 people have been on trolleys already in March, the highest ever. There is an average of 1,500 each month of this year. All those are the highest ever. The staff are exhausted. There are no proper facilities for getting people through the hospital quickly. Home care packages are pulled. Step-down facilities are pulled. What will the Taoiseach do? The Minister for Health has not stepped up to the plate. It is an ongoing issue every day. The people of Limerick and the mid-west region have been abandoned by the Taoiseach and the Government. I have raised this with the Taoiseach on a number of occasions.
I have spoken to HSE again recently. There is a significant crisis across the health service because of the impact of this variant. It is creating huge pressures on hospitals because they have to isolate more and more patients, 50% of whom do not come in because of Covid but transpire to have Covid when they are in hospital. That necessitates isolation and other procedures which makes it doubly difficult on the hospitals and emergency services. Then there is the problem of people leaving hospital having been officially discharged. They cannot move into respite or nursing home care because of those nursing homes being the centres of outbreaks.
The DAA, in order to deal with the deficit of private security which meant massively long queues in the airport over the weekend and likely to continue, is offering jobs where applicants have to be available for 40 hours per week but are only guaranteed 20 hours, coming out with €283. That is an absolute insult. It follows hot on the heel of meetings I have had with private security workers, of which there are 16,000 in this country. They will be organising a protest when the Dáil comes back on 27 April because they are so angry at the low levels of pay. These workers worked all during Covid on the front line. Their employers are resisting a miserable increase in the employment regulation order, ERO, to €12.05, which in any event is pathetic. This highlights how shockingly badly private security workers, who work everywhere including public transport, education, airports and hospitals, are paid. What does the Government intend to do about the shocking pay and conditions of private security workers?
I thank the Deputy. It is an important issue and I will raise with the DAA the assertions the Deputy has made about having to be available 40 hours to do 20 hours. There clearly should be a more worker-friendly approach than that. I will follow up.
Ba mhaith liom aird an Taoisigh a tharraingt ar chúrsaí séarachais ar Inis Mór, atá ag truailliú na timpeallachta agus ag cur isteach ar shláinte mhuintir an oileáin. Tá leithris phoiblí nua, córas séarachais chuí do thithe Chill Rónáin agus córas séarachais rialaithe ag teastáil, chomh maith le plean do chóras cóireála fuíolluisce. An ndéanfaidh an Taoiseach fiosrú ar an bhfadhb seo agus an gcinnteoidh sé go mbeidh an obair atá ag teastáil ar chóras séarachais Inis Mór déanta i gceart?
Le fada an lá, agus i rith na mblianta, táimid tar éis an-chuid tacaíochta a thabhairt d’Inis Mór agus do na hoileáin ar fud na tíre. Bheinn sásta déileáil le muintir an oileáin arís ó thaobh seirbhísí agus an méid atá ag teastáil. Beidh an Rialtas ag déanamh teagmhála leo.