Wednesday, 18 May 2022
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 17 to 20, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality oversees implementation of the programme for Government commitments in the areas of social policy, including sport, equality, arts and culture, as well as children and youth affairs and public services, including matters relating to justice, policing reform and community safety. These commitments and other matters include poverty and disadvantage; examining area-based initiatives to build stronger communities; progress to a living wage over the lifetime of the Government; addressing food poverty in children and ensuring no child goes hungry; expanding the Dublin north-east inner-city model to comparable areas experiencing disadvantage; introducing a scheme to regularise undocumented migrants, which was announced last December and is currently open for applications; advancing proposals to deal effectively with the issue of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence through a third national strategy; ending the direct provision system and replacing it with a new international protection accommodation policy; extending paid parental leave, allowing parents to spend more time with their baby during his or her first year; establishing Childcare Ireland to assist the sector in delivering high-quality childcare; legislating to require publication of the gender pay gap in large companies; responding to the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly on Gender Equality; publishing a new national action plan against racism; progressing implementation of A Policing Service for our Future, including more visible community policing; introducing a new policing and community safety Bill to redefine the functions of An Garda Síochána; and introducing hate crime legislation.
The Cabinet committee last met on 19 May and will meet again in the coming weeks. I have regular engagements with Ministers at Cabinet and individually to discuss priority issues relating to their Departments. In addition, a number of meetings have been held between my officials and officials from relevant Departments on various social policy issues since the establishment of the Cabinet committee in July 2020.
In the last few weeks, I have been contacted by scores of parents who cannot find a childcare place in Cork, and it is one of the biggest issues coming into my constituency office and across the State. When I contacted Tusla to try to get a scope of the issue, it was no wonder parents were finding it difficult. The agency told me 73 childcare services had closed in the past five years in Cork city and county and that there are 384 fewer childcare places in the city than five years ago. When families do find a place in a crèche, they face fees of €800, or often more than €1,000, for just one child, while for two or three children the figure will be well in excess of that. Meeting these costs is a huge weight on families' backs that is holding back parents and predominantly women in their careers. The childcare sector in Cork is haemorrhaging highly qualified childcare professionals because they have been treated so badly by successive Governments, working for little more than the minimum wage.
The Taoiseach's Government needs to address this issue urgently to upscale the supply of affordable childcare.
Childcare is a massive issue for parents in every constituency. Ireland has some of the most expensive childcare costs in Europe and we need clarity on how it is proposed to reduce fees for parents, to improve pay and conditions for staff and to improve the availability of places for children. In Limerick on Monday, I visited two brilliant childcare and early years education services, namely, Northside Family Resource Centre and Our Lady of Lourdes Childworld in Rosbrien. I was asked whether the Government's new funding model will build in recognition of places offering early childhood care and education in disadvantaged settings and whether there will be a delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, style mechanism for childcare settings where there are added needs and where additional resources may be required. In principle, we need to see rapid action on this from the Government because there is so little availability of childcare places and so many parents are struggling with the fees.
I raise a financial issue. As the Taoiseach will know, on 1 May, Carlow became a university town and county and the south east got a technological university, but that brings many challenges. Carlow County Council has applied for €12 million in funding for a project to extend the library in Carlow because we need the services. The library is too small and is inadequate for the expanding services now that university status has been awarded. We have received stage 2 approval and we have proceeded to stage 3. Carlow County Council has a “cultural quarter” in the town centre, which includes Carlow College which is to be integrated into the technological university, and the expansion of the library with this new project. The capital funding for the library for this year is gone, as I understand it, but a new strategy for capital library projects is going to be announced by the end of the year. For regional development and finance for Carlow and because we are doing so well, I ask the Taoiseach to look at this favourably.
The Taoiseach is familiar with the case of Pat and Nuala Geoghegan, who have for more than 25 years been highlighting serious concerns about the health and environmental impacts of the Aughinish Alumina plant neighbouring their farm. They have raised serious questions over a previous investigation into this in the late 1990s, in particular highlighting 18 medical samples that mysteriously disappeared.
I have copies of a previously unpublished letter from the IDA and of notes from a previous meeting the agency had with Aughinish over this. They clearly show that the IDA, with absolutely no environmental or health expertise, not only took Aughinish’s side but sought to influence the outcome of the health investigation. They refer to the importance of the jobs involved and restate the IDA had been assured by the company that there was nothing to see there. I have a letter showing these notes were circulated to those conducting the investigation into the health problems despite it containing no scientific or health information, clearly an attempt to use economic arguments to influence the health investigation and to bias the whole thing.
Pat and Nuala Geoghegan are in the Public Gallery. Will the Taoiseach support the call he supported previously for a public inquiry?
Tomorrow at 1 o'clock, outside the gates of Leinster House, the newly established cost of living coalition, which involves pensioners' groups, students' unions, political parties, trade unionists and so on, will hold a protest over what they believe, and I think they are right, is the Government's failure to address the cost of living crisis, which is crucifying workers, pensioners, students and the least well-off in our country. Whether it is rents gone out of control, childcare costs, college fees, the cost of food items or heating and energy costs, they believe, and I think they are right, that the Government has not done enough to control the cost of living or deal with the profiteering by landlords and energy companies. What does the Taoiseach have to say about measures he will take to address the cost of living crisis to those who will protest tomorrow?
I add my voice to the calls of Deputy Paul Murphy and others for a full review of what could only be described as the very dodgy dealings at Askeaton, County Limerick. I am new to this case and have been reading up on it only over recent days, and it is clear the public interest has not been served by the investigations into the missing samples, the freedom of information documentation that confirms those samples had been tested, and the question as to who, what, when and why those samples and the subsequent results went missing. The Taoiseach was intimately involved in this case as Minister for Health and Children. Will he accept the case has not been satisfactorily resolved and commit to reopening an investigation into the matter?
I thank the Deputies for raising these issues. Deputy Ó Laoghaire asked about the issue of childcare. In the last budget, very significant additional funding was allocated for childcare with a focus on enhancing pay and conditions for those working in the area. Discussions are to take place between employers in the childcare area and representatives of workers with a view to reaching a joint labour committee agreement. My understanding is that September is the deadline for that but I can double-check the timelines. The allocation in the budget for the latter part of this year and the full year of 2023 was very substantial because there is no question but that childcare is a big issue for many people. The costs are very significant and place great pressure on many young families. There is also the issue of retaining people in the childcare sector and encouraging people to pursue career pathways in that field. That is why the Minister took the decision to seek resources in the last budget round in respect of the career pathway aspect, conditions and making the situation more attractive for those working in childcare.
Deputy Bacik raised the same issue although she added a point on specific offerings for disadvantaged areas. I will discuss that with the Minister. There are already some provisions in that respect but a DEIS-type approach to childcare in disadvantaged areas is something that we could pursue and which could support communities. We already offer significant support but we will certainly examine the Deputy's proposal.
On Deputy Murnane O'Connor's point, these are exciting times in Carlow, particularly with regard to the decision that the grounds of Carlow College can be made available to South East Technological University. That is significant. The Deputy's more immediate request related to Carlow County Council's application for a new county library, costing around €12 million. This is progressing. It is on stage 3. I will engage with the Minister in that regard because a modern library would be worthwhile infrastructure for the general population of Carlow and not just because of what is transpiring at third level.
On the Aughinish Alumina plant and the campaign of Pat and Nuala Geoghegan, I have not gone over all of the documentation recently but, if my recollection is correct, there was significant work by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. I do not have the documents Deputy Paul Murphy says he has with regard to the Industrial Development Authority, IDA Ireland. The issue was examined from a health perspective and by the EPA at the time. These are issues that should be examined by independent agencies with expertise and competency in the field. That campaign has been going on for a long time and there have been quite a number of reports and reviews.
Deputy Boyd Barrett spoke about the cost of living. The Government has responded to the cost-of-living issue in a very significant way. I do not agree with the Deputy's analysis of the Government's response. More than €2 billion has now been provided if you take into account both the budget and more recent efforts. We hiked the weekly fuel allowance and paid an additional lump sum of €125 in March. A further special payment of €100 will be paid to 370,000 households in receipt of the fuel allowance. As a result, the fuel allowance paid in the full season from 2021 to 2022 totals €1,139, an increase of €404 or 55% on the previous year. We have reduced the excise duty on petrol, diesel and green diesel until mid-October, saving motorists between €9 and €12 each time they fill their tank. We have reduced VAT from 13.5% to 9% on gas and electricity bills until the end of October resulting in estimated annual savings for households of €50 and €70 respectively. We have given households a €200 energy credit and will cut the annual public service obligation levy of €58 to zero by October 2022. We have launched a national retrofitting scheme that provides free energy upgrades for those at risk of energy poverty. We have introduced new grant rates that will cover approximately 80% of the typical cost of attic and wall insulation. We have reduced caps on school transport fees for multiple children and cut public transport by 20%, with an additional 50% cut in fares for young people. We have lowered the threshold for the drugs payment scheme to €80 per month, benefiting more than 17,000 families. We have brought forward the working family payment increase announced on budget day from 1 June to 1 April. We have agreed to abolish the inpatient charge of €80 per night for all children. We have capped annual rent increases at 2% and launched a cost-rental scheme with homes available at 40% to 50% below market rents. We have also introduced significant support packages for the hospitality industry, including the 9% VAT rate, and for the haulage and tillage sectors. I could go on. Significant efforts have been made.
Deputy Carthy raised a similar issue to that raised by Deputy Paul Murphy in respect of Askeaton. As I have said, there have been a number of reports and reviews and these can be re-examined but that is the position as it stands today.