Thursday, 26 May 2022
Ceisteanna ar Pholasaí nó ar Reachtaíocht - Questions on Policy or Legislation
Returning to the issue of special education, the language is not the problem. The problem is the policy and the scandalous fact that in late May there are 80 children in Dublin and many more across the State who do not yet have special classes assigned to them for next September. The problem is that the Government has not planned to put in place the measures that would fulfil the parents' wishes that these children with disabilities will be part of the school community rather than some anonymous special education centre, which now appears to be proposed. The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, and the Department have the data on the number of children with special educational needs, they have the budget and they have the powers to put these special classes in place. Those classes need to be provided. The Tánaiste needs to say very clearly today that any proposition that children with autism or other disabilities be segregated in the manner that has been suggested is unacceptable.
Whatever about language, and language is important, the policy is clear and the Government's policy is absolutely clear. It is one of integration. If we want an integrated society, we must have integrated schools. It is the Government's policy to provide children who have special educational needs with mainstream education. That could be in a mainstream class with the help of an SNA or it could be in a special class in a mainstream school. Three hundred additional special classes opened in mainstream schools in the past year and that is very significant. For every €4 we spend on schools now, €1 is spent on special education, more than ever was the case before. We are very committed to making sure that children get the education to which they have a right and which they need.
A very concerning report on the risks from radon was published today by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. Radon is the greatest health risk in Ireland in terms of exposure to radiation. Fifty-six per cent of the total radiation to which we are exposed comes from radon, which is linked to 350 new lung cancer cases a year, most of which could be prevented. While building regulations for new homes require the installation of radon membranes, are there any plans to make it obligatory to test for radon when a house is either sold or rented? Will the State carry out radon tests on homes? With this new information on the number of homes at risk, will grants or financial supports be put in place to support households who wish to get works done to install necessary membranes or sumps?
Returning to the issue of special education centres, I agree that language is important. Can the Tánaiste imagine the shudder of fear that went through families with children with special or additional needs last night when they heard the phrase "special education centres"? The Government asks us for our trust. The Tánaiste says the policy is integration, yet the practice now seems to be segregation. I will ask the Tánaiste straight out: can he promise me, the Chamber and families at home who are looking on with fear that over the coming months and years no child with a special or additional need will be placed into a prefab or an underused building? The Tánaiste talks about policy, but this cannot be the practice. Each week, we in the Dáil see children come to us with their families seeking school places or wheelchairs. Children and families have for too long had to strive for their basic needs when it comes to the vindication of their disability rights. They have absolutely no trust when they hear "special education centres" that it will not mean segregation. It simply will not be stood for.
I understand the concern and understand how parents must have felt last night when they heard language used that their children would be offered a stopgap solution. No parent wants to hear that. The Government's commitment and policy on this is clear. As I mentioned earlier, 300 special classes opened in mainstream schools last year. The Minister has the power to require schools to provide additional mainstream classes. The policy is one of integration and mainstreaming. Sometimes other solutions are necessary. Sometimes special schools are required. We had to open one in my constituency. That was a big improvement for the children who used the school and who had previously been in home tuition. Today there will be a meeting involving the stakeholders at which there will be proper information and proper consultation. I would prefer to let that happen rather than my adding further confusion. I think that that meeting is happening now, and it is important that it proceed.
The ESRI report published today shows the utterly disastrous situation facing low-income households looking for and needing support to get affordable housing. It demonstrates that the Government's failure to provide the social housing necessary for low-income families and to have housing assistance payment, HAP, limits that are even close to the extortionate rents being charged out there, as well as its refusal to raise the income thresholds for more than a decade, mean that low-income families are either not getting the housing support necessary to find rental accommodation or, worse, not getting any housing support at all because their incomes are marginally over the income thresholds. The human reality of this is that today yet another person facing eviction through no fault of their own walked into my clinic. Nothing is available in the area. This person is facing homelessness and is not entitled to housing support. What is the Government going to do to respond to the findings of this report?
I have not had a chance to read the report yet but I will certainly get to it, if not over the next few days then over the weekend. As the Deputy will know, at the centre of the Government's response to the housing crisis is an increase in supply. Supply on its own will not solve the problem, but we will not solve the problem without additional supply. It is a fact that 25,000 new homes have been built in the past year, more than has been the case for probably a decade. There are 35,000 under construction and 45,000 going through planning. We need to ramp up supply. That on its own will not solve the problem-----
Hundreds of thousands of commuters are paying massive prices on motorway tolls every day. Many people are commuting up to three hours a day and paying thousands of euro a year for tolls in their areas. In Meath there are four tolls. Someone living in Kells, for example, and working in south Dublin can pay up to €3,600 per year on tolls. Aontú has done research that has shown that commuters have paid €1.3 billion just on M50 tolls in nine years. This is State-owned infrastructure and commuters have already paid for its construction yet, incredibly, people are being fined up €25,000 for not paying tolls on this road. The Government often says that it cannot reduce the cost of living and that its hands are tied, but this is something it can do. This is infrastructure it owns. Will the Government scrap the tolls on the M50 bridge or reduce the cost on commuters, who can hardly pay to put petrol in their cars?
I am not a big fan of road tolls, and the Deputy will be aware that that toll is in my constituency. Many of my constituents travelling south in the morning and north in the evening have to pay that toll. It would be remiss of me, however, not to acknowledge that in most cases tolls help to pay for the infrastructure in the first place, which has to be paid for.
In other cases that money is used to pay for additional road infrastructure elsewhere, so the money stays with Transport Infrastructure Ireland. To help commuters with the cost of commuting, we have introduced a reduction in excise on petrol and diesel and a very significant reduction in the cost of using public transport, which seems to have been a great success, given the increased numbers using buses and trains in the past few weeks.
Earlier this week the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, stated that she was bringing forward a targeted and time-bound proposal in the form of a subvention for our post offices of between €10,000 and €12,000 per year in order to save the network from collapse. This was followed, however, by mixed messaging from the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who stated that his Department had not ruled in or out any funding. This mixed messaging is unfair. It is unfair on our postmasters and does not instil confidence among the postmasters that the Government is willing to step up to the mark and to save the network. Also, for some time now rural post offices have been calling for the services identified in the Grant Thornton report to be implemented urgently in order to make post offices viable and to enable them to survive and to thrive across our State. What actions and what measures will the Government take? Will it give clarity to our postmasters? Mixed messaging is just not good enough.
This matter is not yet finalised. Taking the Deputy's point on board, I would prefer that it is finalised and fully agreed before I make any announcement on it. What I can say, however, is that the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, working with the Ministers, Deputies Michael McGrath and Heather Humphreys, is working very hard on a proposal that would provide State subvention for a number of post offices around the country, particularly those in rural areas and those very small post offices that provide an essential community need.
That proposal is now being developed. That does not mean that every post office will remain open. It means that where there is somebody willing to be the postmaster and to keep the post office open, it will be a viable commercial option for them to do so.
I had planned to raise a different issue today but instead I want to mention that when I had to go out for something earlier, I was shocked to see tents that are used by homeless people for shelter being removed from the area outside Agriculture House on Kildare Street. The people doing this work were using a van from the infamous Aramark company. They were working on behalf of DublinTown, which is working on behalf of Dublin City Council to remove the tents. This is the only accommodation that homeless people have. The recent ESRI report, which was published yesterday, set out that the unavailability of rent subsidies puts people at risk of homelessness. Will the Tánaiste ensure that rent allowance limits are raised, as outlined by the ESRI, and that the thresholds for access to housing are raised, as the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage has been considering for the last two years?
We all acknowledge that the limits for access for social housing need to be raised. They have not been raised for quite some time and the cost of housing has increased considerably in the last couple of years. It is intended that we raise those limits, but I cannot give the Deputy the exact amount or the timeframe for that at the moment. That is a matter for the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. However, it would be right to acknowledge, as I am sure Deputy Pringle will, that we are very much under way on the biggest social housing programme in the history of the State. Nearly 9,000 new social homes will be provided this year. This figure is more than any year in the 1980s, the 1950s and the 1920s, or any time in history that we want to go back to. As a consequence of that, the number of people on the housing list has fallen by approximately 30% in recent years. However, that does not take away from the fact that we need to raise the limits.
As the Tánaiste knows, Ulster Bank proposes to exit this State next March and KBC proposes to do the same the following August. This does not seem to be a realistic timeframe, due to the challenging logistics for those two banks’ customers transferring their accounts to other financial institutions. I hear daily of the frustration and worries of customers of Ulster Bank and KBC who are trying to open new accounts elsewhere.
The Financial Services Union has quite rightly pointed out that all retail banks have significantly reduced their personnel and their branch network over recent years, which has resulted in much poorer services for their customers. Bank staff are under enormous pressures. The remaining banks need to increase their staff levels substantially to ensure an orderly transfer of accounts. Can the Government and the Department of Finance, in particular, engage with the financial regulator with a view to the establishment of an oversight committee that is inclusive of all relevant stakeholders to deal with all issues, including the timeframe for the exit of those two banks?
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. For some time, he has been raising issues in relation to the withdrawal of Ulster Bank from the Irish banking sector. There is already a huge amount of engagement under way with regard to the important issue the Deputy has raised. In recent days, the Central Bank has met with the banks that are involved in exiting our market, as well as the banks that will be expected to provide new accounts for new customers. They are emphasising the importance of this being done in an orderly way. I have engaged with the banks on this matter because I recognise that from a consumer point of view, this is a moment of huge change. At a retail banking forum that the Department of Finance organised last week in Carlow, which was attended by the regulator and all of our banks, post offices and credit unions, I made the point in public to everybody that we need this transition to go well. We will continue to follow up on this matter.
I would like to express my concerns about the loss of jobs in County Louth this week. Some 172 jobs will be lost in PayPal. Since January, over 70 redundancies have been announced at Hilton Food Group. There are concerns about jobs in Premier Periclase, which is a local industry in Drogheda that is in transition. I compliment the IDA on the work it has done in buying additional land in County Louth. I am speaking particularly of the 39-acre IDA park in Drogheda. It has made a commitment to an advanced building solution there. I ask it to fast-track the servicing of that site, so that new industry will hopefully go in there. It could do this by working with the chambers of commerce in Dundalk and Drogheda. Would the Tánaiste put a visit to County Louth on his agenda as soon as possible?
I join Deputy O'Dowd in expressing my concern and regret that PayPal has announced these job losses. Some 135 of them will be my constituency and 172 will be in Deputy O’Dowd’s constituency. The company has given a commitment that it is here to stay in Ireland and will continue to have over 2,000 people employed in west Dublin, Louth and other parts of the country. We are ambitious about the IDA land bank in Drogheda. It is a really good opportunity to get a major jobs-rich investment into Drogheda, which is of course the biggest town in Ireland. I look forward to visiting Drogheda in the near future, hopefully with a view to making a positive announcement.
I raise with the Tánaiste the issue of cardiac services for the south east. As he will know, I have been campaigning with others in the Oireachtas on this issue for a long number of years. Oireachtas Members in the south east met with the Minister for Health a long number of months ago. At that meeting, we were promised that the national review into cardiac services was going to be published within days. That has not happened. We were also promised that by March, primary percutaneous coronary intervention emergency services would be extended to the hours of 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday to Friday and that they would be further extended to seven days a week. That has not happened on time. We need an urgency to be brought to this issue. I do not know what has happened and why the commitments that were made have not been delivered, but it is a really important issue, as the Tánaiste knows. I want to see full 24-7 emergency cardiac services available to people in the south east in the future. A stepping stone on the way to get there is to extend the service to the hours of 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Could the Tánaiste tell me when that will happen?
I was informed earlier by the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, that it remains a Government commitment to extend the cath lab service to the hours of 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. This was meant to happen in March. It has not happened yet because it is necessary to hire another clinician to do so. That has not been possible to date. It is still intended to get that done this year, in the third quarter of the year. This demonstrates a difficulty that exists in healthcare generally, not just in Ireland but around the world. The easy part can often be the provision of infrastructure - for example, the building of a second cath lab - but the hard part can be finding sufficient staff who are willing to work 24-7, not just for a year or two but for the rest of their careers. That is why these 24-7 services often get centralised in a small number of places. The second cath lab is being provided. We are determined to extend the service to the hours of 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. as soon as possible.
I want to raise with the Tánaiste the need for a culture of safety in our hospitals and, equally, for the right to know when a doctor has been struck off. There has been another allegation of sexual assault of a patient by a doctor in Naas General Hospital, which is in my constituency. It was featured on “RTÉ Investigates” this week and it dates back to 2011. This exposes how in 2017, when a similar allegation was made, the HSE did not disclose earlier cases. We need to know why and how this happened. This raises serious questions around procedure and the lack of safety within the HSE. What steps is the Government taking to ensure safety and to ensure mandatory disclosure by the Irish Medical Council of a doctor being struck off? This is necessary in order that the public and other hospitals abroad can discover what has happened when they do a search. I hope the Tánaiste appreciates that this is not just about the Opposition and the Government. This is about the safety of our people when they are attending a hospital.
I totally agree with the Deputy’s sentiments in this regard. I was appalled to read about what happened in Naas. I read that a doctor has been struck off in recent times. I will have to follow up on this because I am not exactly sure of the current position. However, it would make sense to me that if the Medical Council strikes somebody off, it should-----
-----be publicly disclosed so that patients are aware and other potential employers are aware, not just in Ireland but abroad. The last thing we want is people being struck off in one country and then being hired in another. That has actually happened. The Deputy raises a very important issue. I will follow up on it.
I want to ask the Tánaiste about the proposal for so-called special education centres. He said earlier that there is a problem with the language around them.
Will the Government take the passport express approach of just changing what it is called but keeping the substance? The problem is not just the language but the substance. Parents are rightly fearful this so-called interim measure will become permanent like so many other things in this State, for example, direct provision. They fear this is segregated education, without the opportunities for integration with other students, and are rightly concerned the Government is avoiding doing what it needs to do, which is to use section 37A of the Act to direct schools to open special classes and put resources in place to ensure students' constitutional right to appropriate education is met.
I have answered a number of questions on this important matter this morning. I assure the Deputy the Government's policy is one of mainstreaming and integration. A meeting is under way at present about that with stakeholders and partners. It is to be hoped that will have a positive outcome.
This week, we heard renewed calls from political leaders in Ukraine asking the EU to freeze Russian assets, seize them and use that funding to support the reconstruction and continuing efforts in Ukraine to repel the vicious war by Russia. These assets stand at approximately €36 billion across the EU, almost €1 billion of which is held in Ireland. What efforts will the Government make to lead the European Union approach to not just freeze these assets but seize them and put them to much more important use?
I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. We are all appalled by the scenes we are seeing in Ukraine and the extent to which cities are being pulverised and civilians are being killed and harmed in the way they are. I hope in the not too distant future we will see a ceasefire in Ukraine. That means the killing will stop and reconstruction can begin. I very much agree with the Deputy's sentiments that some of those Russian assets that have been seized should be used to help Ukraine to rebuild.
I have been working alongside families in County Wexford who are campaigning for reform of children's disability services. They are fighting for the services and support their children desperately need. For example, one child, nine-year-old Leo Dixon, has been waiting more than 18 months for a wheelchair. He has outgrown his second-hand wheelchair and is not even capable of propelling it. I understand the establishment of family forums, which provides an opportunity for families to discuss general issues and ideas about children's disability services, will be an essential part of the children's disability network teams. However, the HSE has reported to me that, to date, no family forums have been established in County Wexford. These families I have been working with are already organising a second protest. They are the experts in this field and their message is clear - they want better disability services. Will the Tánaiste tell me when the family forums be established in County Wexford? Are any additional resources being provided to the HSE in County Wexford to establish these forums?
The Tánaiste explained earlier that bringing supply on board with regard to housing is the only long-term solution, but that will take a lot of time. Ukrainians will be housed in student accommodation during the summer but where will they go come late September or October? One of the available housing resources is the number of derelict houses throughout the country, not just in towns and villages but one-off houses in rural Ireland, where people might have abandoned an old house and built a new house or bungalow beside it. There is a lack of clarity about doing those old houses up, from a planning perspective. There is also a cost to that but it is far cheaper than bringing new houses on board. Many Members have an interest in this issue, including Deputy Griffin, who is seated behind the Tánaiste. Has the Government any plans for a campaign to bring derelict houses throughout the country back into use to house people?
As the Deputy will be aware, a lot of work is already being done to bring derelict houses back into use. In some parts of the country, local authorities are placing buildings under compulsory purchase orders and bringing them back into use. Louth is a good example of that. There is also the repair and lease scheme, which people can use-----
-----to bring a house back into use and then lease it, but we need to do more. The kind of things we are working on at present include a general grant people will get if they buy a derelict house, bring it back into use and live in it, which is the carrot. A proposal being worked out, which would be the stick, is a tax on vacant residential properties.
At a time when our nearest neighbour is experiencing economic stagnation, it is worth emphasising the importance of good political and economic leadership that has delivered, as of today, 2.5 million people at work. That is an increase of 700,000 since the economic crash and an increase of 150,000 since the onset of Covid. Will the Tánaiste indicate the progress being made on the development of a living wage to ensure quality work is enshrined in this strong growth? Is there a commitment that upskilling will become a feature of those at work and not just those who are leaving education?
The programme for Government commits us to move towards a living wage in Ireland over the period of this Government. I have the report of the Low Pay Commission in this regard, which sets out a roadmap as to how we can achieve that. I intend to bring those proposals to Government before the summer recess and then engage on a public consultation on them. It is to be hoped we will make an announcement on that in the next few weeks.
It is a separate matter, but I very much agree with the Deputy on upskilling. We will talk to him some more about that because certainly the message from around the world, and from industry, is we need to make lifelong learning the norm so that people in work are continuously upskilled and are able to move up the ladder in respect of skills and pay.
I will also raise the issue of the living wage. I understand the Low Pay Commission has completed its report and the Tánaiste has had it since March. The Tánaiste said he would engage in consultation over the summer months but when will the report be published, which we signed on to, so we can also read it? As he is aware, it is a commitment in the programme for Government and is something we want to do. Last time I spoke to the Tánaiste, he told me to speak to my colleagues in the North, which I did. Sinn Féin, in government in the North, has introduced the living wage for public sector jobs and contracts. I hope we will be included in consultations on the Government's proposals for the living wage. Will the Tánaiste tell us when the Low Pay Commission report will be published?
My plan is to bring it to Government in June. With its approval, I will publish the report and the research that backs it up, and also initiate a public consultation on it with a view to beginning to make it a reality in 2023.
I will again raise the issue of special education centres, as so many other Deputies have done. As the Tánaiste knows, I was a teacher for 15 years, 12 of which were spent teaching in a Delivering Equality of Opportunity in School, DEIS, school that had an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, hub. I saw first-hand the benefits of the inclusive model of education we have and of children being able to interact with mainstream and go to the ASD class, when appropriate. I am concerned about last night's announcement by the Minister of State at the Department of Education, Deputy Madigan. It flies in the face of so many of the buzzwords we use in this area, such as inclusive education, child-centred education, integration and so on. I have genuine concerns about the proposal's constitutionality and I believe it is a human rights issue. I urge the Government to seriously reconsider what it seems to be considering. I acknowledge the Tánaiste's earlier response regarding a meeting taking place today. We have to bear in mind what will come out of that meeting, but I have serious concerns.
I hear what the Deputy is saying and I hear his concerns. I assure the House the Government's policy on special needs is one of integration, mainstreaming children in mainstream classes with a special needs assistant where appropriate, special classes in mainstream schools where appropriate - 300 more of those were provided in the past year alone - and only where there is no viable alternative to have special schools and home tuition. That remains the Government's policy and commitment.