Wednesday, 6 July 2022
Ceisteanna ar Pholasaí nó ar Reachtaíocht - Questions on Policy or Legislation
Everyday, people are asking themselves after a decade of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael botched policy that favoured private developers and landlords, how is it that in the face of a crisis like no other in housing we are subjected to the same banal rhetoric we have had to listen to for the last ten or 15 minutes. The Minister should ask himself how we have record house prices, record rent levels and record homelessness for families, single people and children. Despite his assertion to the contrary, he should ask himself how we find ourselves almost in quicksand. The Government is making beggars of people, of our young, of our families, of our older people-----
In the face of the ESRI report, which is just the latest evidence of this catastrophe, does the Government still contend that it is getting it right because it very clearly is not?
Perhaps if the Deputy adopted a more supportive and less obstructive position when it comes to the initiatives the Government is bringing forward to provide homes for our people, we might be in a better place.
Every single major initiative the Government has brought forward the Deputy has sought to block, frustrate and obstruct. You do not want people to be in a position to buy homes. It suits the Deputy politically for the housing crisis to continue.
We know that there is a housing crisis, indeed a housing disaster. We know from today's ESRI report that there is a particular crisis for those who are renting and for those who are now facing the bleak prospect of having to rent at increasingly unaffordable levels right into their older age and therefore face no security of tenure, no security of accommodation. The ESRI report is just the latest in a litany of Government failure on housing. Will the Minister commit to adopting Labour's renters' rights Bill that we proposed constructively last September to provide greater security of tenure to those renting, better conditions for renters and a three-year rent freeze? Will the Government agree to look again at Senator Moynihan's proposal for a rent-to-buy scheme which would constructively seek to address the real needs of those who are facing an old age of renting in an insecure rental market where it is increasingly difficult to find anywhere to rent, let alone anywhere affordable?
The Government has brought in six different rental Acts since coming into office two years ago. We have capped rent increases in rent-pressure zones to 2% per annum. All new tenancies created on or after 11 June this year will become tenancies of unlimited duration after six consecutive months in occupation under the tenancy. Ultimately, the only answer here is for us to build enough homes to ensure that people have options, including cost-rental and affordable purchase, with those who qualify able to get access to a social home. That is what the Government is focused on doing. We can introduce more legislation to restrict rights of landlords and make it more difficult for them to secure vacant possession and sell a home, but more landlords will leave the market and the situation will get worse. There is a balance to be struck here to ensure we have an adequate supply of rental accommodation in the private market.
There is a myth of free education in this country. Yesterday's measures were an acknowledgement of that. They were driven by the level of fear and anxiety from parents contacting all of our offices including the Minister's talking about their dread over the cost of their children returning to school in September. It was estimated that €236 million would provide a fully free primary and secondary education in this country. It would alleviate the fear of the cost of schoolbooks and the voluntary contribution that sees a kid going home from school in October with a note in the bag saying that the parent has not yet paid it. Will the Minister commit to spending €236 million for free primary and secondary education in the budget to truly offset the fear of the return to education? For some it is a cost-of-living crisis. For others it is a cost of survival. That €236 million would go a long way to offset that.
By any objective measure we have made positive developments in education policy over the last couple of years at primary level through successive reductions in the pupil-teacher ratio, the single largest expansion of DEIS places in the history of the State and now an increase in the back-to-school allowance. We now have over 19,000 special needs assistants, SNAs, thank God, and it is the right thing to do. Almost 1,000 extra special education teachers have now been funded and will be appointed for the coming school year. We need to try to meet all the needs that exist across the board and that is before we talk about housing, on which we have just had a long exchange-----
Because of the Government’s failure to address the cost-of-living crisis, the Cost of Living Coalition will hold another protest outside Leinster House next Wednesday before the summer recess and a further protest before the budget on 24 September. If there were not already enough good reasons for those protests, the exceptional needs payment, which the Government has been trumpeting as the solution if people are in difficulties, provides another reason to protest.
A senior citizen came to me yesterday. On foot of all the propaganda about the exceptional needs payment she went to the community welfare officer to replace a 15-year-old broken cooker which would cost about €350. The community welfare officer told her she needed to get an engineer's report to certify that the cooker was actually broken which would cost her about €100, if she could get one. That is outrageous.
The Deputy has raised a specific case. To be fair, I do not have all the facts of that case. The exceptional needs scheme is there to support people for one-off costs like that. I am surprised to hear what he has said. We will ask the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, to look at that if he can provide the details because it sounds like an excessive, inappropriate response. That person should be looked after.
I very much welcome the Government's announcement some months ago about the €1,000 Covid bonus payment. The Government is going to extend it to members of the Defence Forces. The Minister might not be aware that not a single soldier, sailor or flight crew member has received that €1,000 bonus payment yet. Worse still, not only have they not received it, but they have not even applied for it because no mechanism exists to apply. I would be grateful if the Minister could look into this and follow it up with the appropriate line Minister.
I will look into that further. To date almost 62,000 HSE staff have received the payment as have an estimated 14,000 staff in section 38 organisations. Over 75,000 people have been paid to date. When it comes to those who are not directly employed by the State, including those in private nursing homes, hospices as well as members of the Defence Forces who are employed by the State but not by the HSE, the Department of Health is working with the parent employers to put in place a process for that payment to be made as quickly as possible. I will ask the Minister to respond to the Deputy.
Last Sunday I was at the very successful Clonmel Agriculture Show. I met many farmers whose combine harvesters were oiled and greased ready to start harvesting what looks to be a very promising harvest, thankfully. All we need is the weather. Those farmers who are planning on cutting and harvesting their crops have no idea of next year's requirements under the new Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, proposals. Neither the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, nor anybody else can tell them. When will they know?
The day they cut the corn, bale and take the straw off the fields is the day they need to start sowing winter wheat, barley and everything else for next year. Why is there a delay? Why are we trying to hound our farmers out of business by means of frustration and the imposition of punitive measures? They do not even know what they are supposed to do as regards next year's planting season, what they can grow and what measures they must adopt and adapt to. This is totally unfair to farmers. It is time the Government respected the agricultural industry for what it is, namely, the primary industry in this country.
The Deputy is referring to the CAP rules for next year. We are engaging with the European Commission in terms of getting our national CAP plan adopted by the Commission. No country's plan has yet been adopted. I am very hopeful that Ireland will be one of the first to do so because of the really good progress we are making. This will bring the clarity that is required. Supporting the tillage sector and tillage farmers is a key priority of the Government. Last year, for the first time ever, I introduced a strong co-operation measure that is now programmed into the next CAP, will be there for the next five years and will pay €10,000 to each tillage farmer with 100 acres.
We also introduced the tillage incentive scheme this year. This pays €400 per hectare for each additional hectare of tillage grown. We will see 200,000 extra tonnes of grain grown as a result of that. This is a reflection of how this Government is backing tillage farmers in this country.
The CRH share price is remarkably stable and is outperforming other share prices on the ISEQ index. Is this anything to do with the fact that we are going to pass a Bill in this House this week - it is going to be guillotined - that will transfer all the cost of all the remediation of all the dodgy dealings in quarries for decades in Ireland to the Exchequer? There will be no come back. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has to balance that cost with the cost of providing badly needed funding for University Hospital Limerick, childcare, a matter raised by Deputy Gannon, and many competing needs in our State. Is he happy that the quarries that provided the dodgy materials for profit are going to get away scot-free and that the Exchequer is going to carry all of the cost one more time.? That cost will be will be landed on the Exchequer and off we will go on our holidays. Does the Minister think this is okay?
In the immediate sense, our priority is to get the scheme up and running, and to legislate to ensure that we can start getting homes remediated and rebuilt under what is a much improved scheme. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has appointed a senior counsel to examine the issues raised by the Deputy.
There has to be accountability in respect of the root cause of this issue. The State will do whatever it takes to pursue anyone responsible for what will end up being a very large cost on the Exchequer. The State will explore every avenue to seek recompense in respect of that. In the immediate term, our priority is to get the scheme up and running and get work done on homes. We will pursue that issue to the end.
The Minister will recall that on many occasions in the House and in correspondence I have raise with him the need for the PEACEPLUS programme to be operational as soon as possible. I compliment him on his role in securing €1.1 billion for this North-South programme over the next number of years. We need to build on the good work of the PEACE and INTERREG programmes. These programmes brought much-needed investment, in both social and economic terms, to many disadvantaged communities in the Border region and Northern Ireland. Over the years, I have been privileged to work with many community groups throughout Cavan and Monaghan and statutory agencies locally, which have provided many worthwhile facilities and services arising from that investment. This has been replicated throughout the northern half of our country. Many of the groups need this funding in order to continue programmes that are bringing real benefits to different communities, many of which both North and South have been disadvantaged over the years. I have received queries from groups in my constituency and outside our jurisdiction that are anxious to have some certainty about the timeframe for rolling out this very important programme where €1.1 billion will be invested in communities.
I thank the Deputy for raising the PEACEPLUS programme and acknowledge his consistent advocacy for this very exciting programme, in respect of which over €1.1 billion has been allocated. It was approved by the Governments, North and South, in the autumn of last year and was submitted to the European Commission in March. Work to finalise the financing agreement for PEACEPLUS between the EU, Ireland and the UK is at an advanced stage. All parties are aiming to reach an agreed text in July. The formal launch of PEACEPLUS is anticipated for the autumn. We need to see the approval by the Commission of the PEACEPLUS programme. We are expecting that in the near future and, hopefully, all will be set for a launch in the autumn. A lot of advance work is happening pre application. Support is being put in place by the special EU programmes body and the local authorities in the North and along the Border counties to make sure groups are ready to go with their applications.
I see from media reports yesterday that the Commission on Taxation and Welfare has completed its work and submitted its report, which presumably sits on the Minister's desk at the minute. Again from media reports, I see that it has identified the upcoming hole in the finances that will be caused by decreasing motor tax revenues in the future. It also apparently includes a consideration of site valuation tax. What is the likely timeframe for that report being made more widely available to the public? Will the recommendations it contains be considered in the context of the upcoming budgetary process?
The Commission on Taxation reports to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe. I am not sure if it has been completed, but I can check. My understanding was that it will be later in the autumn and into the winter. I certainly saw a reference to November of this year being the expected timeline for completion and publication of that report. It may be the case that some or all elements of the report will be available before the budget and can feed into the budgetary process, but I cannot confirm that today.
Yesterday, researchers from NUI Galway launched the 2022 edition of the local authority finances website. It shows that Galway County Council has a budget of under €144 million for this year, which is equivalent of €802 per person in Galway. If you look at the counties surrounding Galway, you can see that Mayo has a budget of the equivalent of €1,256 per person, Clare has a budget of €1,167 and Tipperary has a budget of more than €1,200. Galway is bigger than all of these counties and has a population that is far greater. The most recent census shows that 258,000 people live in the county. The policy makes no sense. Galway is the second largest county in Ireland, yet it is at the bottom of the table year on year when it comes to central Government funding. Despite my raising this matter numerous times, nobody can tell me why. It is towns like Ballinasloe and villages from Ahascragh to Ballymoe and the people who in County Galway that are losing out. They do not have the budget to do what they need to do in respect of housing, water and roads. This issue needs to be addressed. This situation does not make any sense and it is affecting staff numbers. Can the Minister look at this?
It has been generally acknowledged by local authority executives and members throughout the country that the Government looked after them well over the course of Covid-19. I include Galway City Council and Galway County Council in that. This was the right thing to do. There was full compensation for rates waivers. Even though local authorities do not always collect 100% of rates, they were refunded 100%. All of this underlines the need to have a sustainable revenue source, including the local property tax, which the Deputy and her colleagues oppose. Taking that away would further erode the revenue base local authorities have.
The Deputy raised a specific issue relating to Galway. I will ask the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, who is in charge of the allocation of funding across local authorities, to come back to her directly.
The 20% reduction in public transport fares is a great initiative. However, there are unintended consequences in terms of private operators' routes. Route 307 goes to the University of Limerick and covers Castletroy College, while route 308 covers Groody Road and Ballysimon. Dublin Coach has announced that it is pulling that service effective from close of business on Friday. I very much welcome the 50% reduction that has been given across all operators. Has the Government considered the 20% reduction to all operators? The National Transport Authority made a pre-budget submission to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform looking for €2 million to €3 million to deal with situations where routes are being discontinued by private operators because they are not public service obligation, PSO, routes.
This is an extremely important issue for Limerick and Castletroy.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and for welcoming the reduction in public transport fares. The purpose of that initiative is to support PSO public transport every day throughout the country. That is the way in which it is being applied. We have, over the course of Covid, provided additional support to the private transport sector. I will ask the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to respond directly to the Deputy on this specific example he has raised in respect of the private sector.
DEBRA Ireland, an advocacy group for epidermolysis bullosa, EB, or butterfly skin, made its pre-budget submission in Buswells Hotel last week on behalf of the families of those who are living with EB. Emma Fogarty and Liz Collins made a powerful presentation on the difficulties and challenges that they face day in and day out. They have three asks in respect of the budget. The first is to create a ring-fenced fund for home nursing care for children and adults with EB. The second is to fund an EB outreach nurse. The third is to fund the clinical psychologist for those living EB. Will the Minister give consideration to their very modest request in the context of September’s budget?
I have not yet seen that particular pre-budget submission. The way the process works is that over the coming weeks I will sit down with my colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, as part of the Estimates process to agree on a settlement for health for 2023. Then, the more micro-decisions relating to the allocation of funds all of the different strands of healthcare will be made by the Minister, in line with the programme for Government priorities and with Government policy. I suggest that Deputy Andrews make the case directly to the Minister for Health.
The Minister recognises that County Kerry is definitely the tourism capital of Ireland. That is an undisputed fact. Yet, we have a problem at the moment, which is workers. Businesses, in particular, small businesses in our tourism sector, such as in pubs, restaurants, shops and hotels have a difficulty. I am sure that difficulty is probably reflected throughout the rest of the country, but I am talking about County Kerry. It may be the cost of going to work that has gone wrong or it may come down to the availability of workers, but we have a situation that I have never seen before. Excellent places that provide an excellent service are now, instead of being open seven days and seven nights, open for three nights or four nights, because they cannot get staff for the other nights. I respectfully ask the Minister and the Government what, if anything, can be done to try to rectify this and put it right. It is a shame to think of businesses that can provide a good service not being able to do so because of a lack of workers.
I assure the Deputy that this is an issue all over the country, and not just in the Kingdom of Kerry. There are staff shortages across a range of sectors. The unemployment rate is now less than 5%. This was confirmed again earlier by the Central Statistics Office. That is good news, but it does create challenges. We are looking at this in the context of different initiatives, such as, for example, the critical skills employment permit. We have dedicated many extra resources there. Applications are now being turned around in under six weeks. That is a major improvement on where we were recently. We are now allowing students to work for extra hours in the summer, and this will not come against them in relation to their Student Universal Support Ireland grants. I have asked my officials, working with their counterparts in other Departments, to identify the blockages in the system that might deter people from taking on extra hours or that might prevent them from taking up jobs. It should be the case that work always pays. Doing more work should always pay. There are issues there in the system that do not always lend themselves to that objective. I have asked that some work would be done to examine those issues quickly.
All politics is local. Please forgive me for raising an issue related to my local GAA club, Meelick GAA club in south Clare. I played with the club, very poorly, for many years. The club has put a request before the Minister’s Department to purchase a piece of State-owned land located at the rear of its stand. This land is not being used for any purpose. It is rough pasture. There was a donkey on it the last time I was down there watching a match. Can the Minister please sign off on the proposal? They want to buy it. They are not looking for a gift. It is with the Department, and the club submitted maps in the springtime. It is not an overly complicated case. The club are really hoping for some good news from the Minister’s Department this summer and from the OPW.
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue on behalf of Meelick GAA club. I will look into the issue with the OPW. In general, where State land is adjoining an existing sports club that has ambitions around expansion, and if there is no other intended use for the land, the State, in principle, is supportive of disposing that land, either by a means of a freehold agreement or long-term lease to such a club in order that it can improve on their facilities. I will look into the specific case.
It has been almost two weeks since a horrendous tragedy unfolded at a EU border between Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Melilla, where close to 40 refugees fleeing war and persecution were killed. Some of them were crushed up against the border fences. Others were beaten to death by members of a border force of Morocco that is funded by the European Union. This is a graphic illustration of the two-faced and racist policy of fortress Europe. I asked the Taoiseach about this matter last week. I asked him to condemn the killings and to call for an independent investigation. He did neither of those things. He did not even express condolences with those who were killed. Instead, he accused me of being a propagandist for raising this issue. Since then, the UN Secretary General has made a statement about the matter in which he indicated that he was shocked by the killings and he opposed the excessive use of force. I want to give the Government another chance to oppose the killings, to criticise the killings that happened, to express its condolences and to support the call for an investigation into how this happened.
I do not know all the facts relating to that incident, but of course we convey our condolences to those who have been bereaved. We condemn all violent acts that lead to people being killed. I cannot go beyond that because I do not know all of the facts relating to this terrible incident in which so many people lost their lives. I will ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, to reflect on what Deputy Paul Murphy has said and come back to him with a formal Government position.
I want to raise the issue of Our Lady's Hospital, Navan. Following recent developments, 17 consultants wrote to the Minister for Health to voice their concerns about the potential closure of the emergency department in Navan. The stated that they would not be able to cope. They said the hospital will not be able to provide the right care for patients at the right time or in the right place. They proceeded to say that the transfer of risk from the emergency department in Navan to an under-resourced hospital in Drogheda will lead to poorer clinical outcomes for patients. Last month, nearly 10,000 patients left emergency departments across the State without being seen, presumably because they were left waiting too long. More than 630 of those people left the emergency department in Drogheda. This was the second highest number in the State. How can the hospital cope with more with more patients? I ask the Government and the Minister for Health to put resources in place, to stop constantly cutting and chipping away at services in Our Lady's Hospital, Navan and to protect and enhance services that are already there. With the emergency situation throughout the country, it makes sense to do that.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I assure him that the Government has provided the resources to the HSE to address this issue. There will be no change to the services provided at Our Lady's Hospital, Navan, until such time as the HSE can establish that Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda and Connolly Hospital Blanchardstown have the extra capacity to deal with the inevitable increase in the number of patients presenting. No decision regarding the HSE’s proposal for a transition of the emergency department in Navan has been agreed by the Minister or the Government at this point.
We are all aware of the pressure on gas supplies in Europe. As winter approaches, this will probably get worse. The oil and gas strike in Norway is thankfully over, but it shows how precarious our one connection to Scotland is. We have no contingency for gas supplies or for gas storage. We depend on it to cook our food, heat our homes, power our industry and generate electricity. Many reports over the last week from experts have shown concerns about this. Does the Minister agree that it is premature to decommission the Kinsale gas pipeline and the Inch offshore terminal? Could the latter not be used, for instance, as floating liquefied natural gas facility in order to provide energy support during our transition to renewables? Will the Government move to stop that decommissioning straight away?
As the Deputy is aware, we are not directly dependent on a supply of gas from Russia. We get approximately 25% to 30% of our domestic needs from the Corrib. The balance comes in through interconnectors from the UK and Norway. We acknowledge the important role that gas is going to play into the future as both a transition fuel and a backup fuel.
Any decision about future policy and about particular facilities should best be made in the context of the energy security review which the Minister, Deputy Ryan, is currently leading. I expect that will come to Government in the coming months.
The national review of specialist cardiac services was established in 2018 and is due to report soon, according to Minister for Health. He has been saying this in response to parliamentary questions since the start of the year, however. The terms of reference say that the review is, among other things, to ensure that patients have access to a service based on clinical need rather than geographic location. It is imperative that this is recognised in any recommendations in order that County Donegal will not be left behind. I ask the Minister to make sure the Minister for Health ensures that is based on geographic location.
Nearly 1,000 people between Castlebar and Athenry who are participating in the rural social scheme and Tús scheme gathered in rooms in the last number of weeks. I acknowledge that Deputy Calleary is also meeting with a group today on the same issue. There are things that need to be sorted.
Will the Minister ask the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, to engage meaningfully with supervisors to implement the very simple changes that are needed? Supervisors' pay has not been reviewed since 2008. We are also giving a top-up of €22.50 per week to these participants. It is a crazy situation. We need to widen the eligibility. The Minister for Social Protection needs to sit down and discuss this further with stakeholders.
As the special joint Committee on International Surrogacy reaches its conclusions, will the Government accept its recommendations? Will the Government amend the Health (Assisted Human Reproduction) Bill 2022? More importantly, will the Minister lay out a timetable for the many families, many of whom are outside the gates at the moment, to ensure that they can be seen as truly equal in the eyes of the State as soon as possible?
With regard to Deputy Pringle's question, my understanding is that work is ongoing with regard to the review of cardiac services, which is being led by Professor Philip Nolan. The timeline was impacted by Covid-19 but it is expected to be completed shortly.
I thank Deputy Conway-Walsh for raising the issue of these very important schemes. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, is examining that issue and has engaged with stakeholders. She will come back to the Deputy further in relation to that issue.
Deputy Richmond raised the issue of international surrogacy. As the Deputy knows, a special committee was established by the Oireachtas to examine this and related issues. Once that work has been concluded and a report brought to Government, we will consider the outcome.