Thursday, 14 July 2022
Ceisteanna ar Pholasaí nó ar Reachtaíocht - Questions on Policy or Legislation
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle, or I should call you "a mháistir"? I wish to associate myself with his comments. On behalf of Sinn Féin, I wish to commend all of the staff in Leinster House, including the caterers, the ushers and the cleaners, who have guided us during us this term. Hopefully, we will all be back here in good health, safe and sound, for the next session in the autumn.
Over the past few days we have seen effigies of my party colleagues, Deputy McDonald and Ms Michelle O'Neill MLA, along with the Alliance Party Leader, Ms Naomi Long MLA, in addition to our national flag being burned on unionist bonfires. This is not culture; it is a hate crime. It is unacceptable. Shockingly, we have heard nothing from the Taoiseach. An effigy of the Leader of the Opposition was burned on a bonfire 90 miles up the road and there was no official reaction from the Government. It is not good enough. It is also not good enough from unionist political leaders and not good enough from the PSNI and political leaders in this State. I ask the Tánaiste to join with me in unequivocally condemning these actions.
At the outset, I want to be associated with and thank the Ceann Comhairle for his words and his good advice. We are all heading off on what is a nine-week recess. It is true of all of us that we will still be working in our Departments, Cabinet will still be meeting and constituency offices will still be open.
Most Members of the House will take two or three weeks' annual leave and will work for the rest of the recess period. Everyone, incidentally, should take their annual leave. We only live once. This is not a dress rehearsal. It is right that Members continue to work throughout the recess but it is also entirely appropriate that they should take their annual leave and spend that time with their families and certainly not feel bad about that in any way.
We also join with the Ceann Comhairle in thanking the staff here in Leinster House and all of our colleagues, including members of the media, for all of their work over the past seven months. I believe I heard the Chief Whip say yesterday that 100 Bills have passed through this House since the Government was formed.
I am pretty sure that that is an all-time record but I know that does not happen just because of what we do here. It involves everybody else as well: the ushers, the Bills Office, and everyone working in this precinct. I express my appreciation on behalf of the Government for that.
On the matter raised by Deputy Doherty, I spoke on Newstalk yesterday and I am happy to repeat what I said then. It is not often the Deputy and I agree 100% but on this occasion I do agree 100% with him. What we saw happen in Northern Ireland with effigies and posters of politicians, including Michelle O'Neill, Naomi Long and others, mainly female politicians but not always, being burned is unacceptable. We also saw the Tricolour and the Palestinian flag, you name it, being burned on bonfires in Northern Ireland. I respect orange culture and I attended a twelfth parade in Enniskillen some years ago with Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster. It was a very well organised and respectful event. It is right that people should celebrate their culture, including orange culture, but burning images of other people and other countries’ flags is not culture. That is hatred and it is absolutely wrong and, on behalf of the Government, I completely condemn it.
On behalf of the Labour Party, I thank the Ceann Comhairle and all of the staff in Leinster House for all of their immense work over the past term and I hope that everybody enjoys a well-earned break over the recess.
I raise concerns about accommodation for those who have come here to our shores seeking refuge, particularly from the brutal war in Ukraine. There are concerning reports today that the transit centre at City West Hotel is accommodating more than 1,000 people and has no longer any further capacity. We know that there are sites like the former Baggot Street hospital in my own constituency still sitting vacant. I know that the Tánaiste said that the Cabinet subcommittee will meet this afternoon to consider contingency planning and responses but, clearly, this is a serious issue of humanitarian concern. Front-line staff across the public service are doing their very best but the situation is very difficult. What will happen to refugees from Ukraine who arrive in Ireland today and over the weekend? Will the Government heed the calls of the Ukraine Civil Society Forum for a national refugee response lead for the settlement of refugees here?
I thank the Deputy very much. There has been an increase in the number of Ukrainians arriving in Ireland across June and July. We think this may be related to the increased targeting of civilian infrastructure across Ukraine. Last night 12 people died in a missile attack on a city in western Ukraine.
We are still responding to a wartime situation. A subcommittee of Cabinet Ministers will meet this afternoon, as the Deputy said. My Department has been working very closely with other agencies including the OPW, HSE and the Department of Defence to provide emergency accommodation for people who are arriving right now.
Our target for that emergency accommodation is to provide it for the people who are in Dublin airport right now and to reduce the numbers in the City West Hotel. Obviously, places like Baggot Street hospital need to be brought online as well but that will not give us the emergency capacity that we are searching for right now.
I too want to raise the issue of the accommodation for Ukrainian refugees. The response the Minister has just given there is probably the same response that would have been given five months ago when this crisis started. I know that no Government could been prepared for what happened. We are, however, five months down the road and all of the kite-flying on such things as modular homes, incentives for holiday homes and vacant State properties have not eventuated.
People, in fact, who have offered own-door accommodation five months ago still have that accommodation sitting empty. That is unacceptable. Why are refugees fleeing the war sleeping on floors when there is free accommodation waiting and ready for them?
More than 2,000 displaced Ukrainian persons are being housed in pledged accommodation at the moment, both vacant and shared, and that number is growing. I recognise that the process is not moving fast enough and that will be one of the issues we will discuss at our meeting later. It is important to recognise that we have grown our accommodation capacity. The State is accommodating 30,000 Ukrainian refugees-----
-----along with 12,000 people seeking international protection. That is a total of 42,000 people. We were accommodating 7,000 people at the same time last year. The change in scale and the extent to which our capacity, need and how we have increased our capacity to accommodate people has to be recognised as well while always recognising that we need to do more.
I raise the same issue with the Minister. We have a crisis now in emergency accommodation for people fleeing the terrible war in Ukraine and other wars and conflicts around the world. We should not distinguish between people suffering in horrendous circumstances or conflicts anywhere in the world. We also have, however, our own homelessness and housing crisis. It all points to the fact that we have to do more and we have to plan.
The simple thing that should be done, which we have been calling for, is that all evictions into homelessness should stop now. This is an emergency and emergency measures need to be taken to get into use vacant houses and properties that are littering the towns and cities of this country. These are being sat on with no justification in many places.
I agree with the Deputy on our moral responsibility but also our legal responsibilities to provide accommodation for Ukrainians who are displaced persons under the EU temporary protection directive and those seeking international protection while their application is being adjudicated on.
International protection is incredibly important and we must make sure there is confidence and strength in that system. There are people fleeing wars in Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria who need the support of international protection. That is why, as well as our provision of accommodation for Ukrainians, we are now accommodating 12,000 people. There has been a significant increase in international protection applicants and a range of factors is responsible for that. These include the post-Covid-19 situation and the change in the UK policy, which has also had a significant impact in respect of the large increase in the numbers seeking international protection here.
Farmers have made significant progress in reducing emissions by improving their efficiency through measures such as: improved breeding, grassland management and the use of animal waste. They have proven both their awareness and long-term commitment. I have been contacted by numerous farmers from across County Tipperary who have expressed their mounting concern at the demands and expectations currently being placed on their shoulders. The underlying message is that they are willing and prepared to make changes, they know the changes are needed and they accept and agree that they have a crucial role to play. The changes required of farmers must be realistic and achievable and must be fair to keep them on board. It is pointless to set targets that are unattainable and impossible to deliver. Placing such demands on the farming community will only serve to alienate them. Ireland needs a thriving agricultural sector. It has, and always will be, the backbone of our rural economy. When does the Tánaiste expect the Government will be in a position to make a decision on these matters.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle. I also thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. Discussions are ongoing at governmental level across all sectors and range over the points in respect of emissions targets. The Deputy raised a valid point, which is that farmers and our farming sector have been on a journey of transition for some time. We continue to produce our food more efficiently and with a better carbon profile. That is our ambition and farmers are adopting new measures through a range of approaches. We want to continue doing that into the future so that we future-proof our sector in line with our Food Vision 2030 strategy in order that we increase the value of the produce in the markets that our farmers sell into. Those markets all have a higher ambition and future-proofing of the sector is the right thing for us to do. We will continue to produce food into the future with a better emissions profile and we intend to continue to work to support the sector to do that.
I too as leader of the Rural Independent Group want to thank gach éinne atá ag obair anseo.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle and all the staff, including the ushers, gardaí and Bills Office, who worked late into the night trying to accommodate all the legislation that the Government rushed through. Deputy McNamara said it was 100 Bills at about one minute each. It is no way to run a parliament.
I ask about the cap on income limits which the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy O'Brien, has promised to review. Tipperary County Council is waiting. Since 2011, there has been no review. It is €25,000 for a single person and €27,500 for a couple. The Tánaiste just said inflation is almost 10%. People cannot live on this package. This is way too low. The review was meant to be out long before the summer recess. Here we are, going on the summer recess, and we do not have the review. We need it, as do the council officials and the people. The public representatives want it as well. We have to be fair to people and give them a reasonable chance of getting on the housing list. Those figures are totally out of date. 2011 was the last time, which was 11 years ago.
I do not have a date for a decision on that but a decision has been made on new tenancies. It is right and proper that we should increase the HAP limits but we do not want to increase them and cause rents to rise further. A distinction is being made where it is a new tenancy. A higher limit is now allowed for that.
Was Polonius not killed off behind a curtain? The Tánaiste is now a hop, skip and jump away from becoming Taoiseach. Almost every day of the lifetime of this Government, certainty today and yesterday, University Hospital Limerick, UHL, has been the most overcrowded hospital in the country. Of the 676 beds we were told would be required at the time of reconfiguration, more than one third have yet to materialise. As Head of Government, what will the Tánaiste do differently? The current Taoiseach has said it is a matter for the HSE, even though the HSE is not improving the situation? What will the Tánaiste do differently to ensure UHL is no longer providing a different level of healthcare from the rest of the country?
It is a hospital I know well and have visited several times. As Taoiseach and Minister for Health previously, I did my best to ensure it got a new state-of-the-art emergency department and additional beds. There are probably 100 or so more beds than a few years ago with more on the way. I helped secure the opening of the Leben Building, for example. A huge amount of investment has gone into that hospital. I accept it may not be enough, given that it is the only level 4 hospital for a very large region, but it is frustrating that that level of investment has not made much of a difference and so many people end up on trolleys. It is not right. It is the case that the hospital will need additional assistance, with more bed capacity in particular but we will have to get more involved in making sure patients are managed better as well.
I have seen hospitals turn around. Drogheda used to always be one of the most overcrowded hospitals; Beaumont and Waterford were others. Those three hospitals have seen dramatic improvements and probably have not seen as much additional investment as Limerick. It is something I am keen to see resolved and improved dramatically over the next two years.
Parents and expectant mothers in Lucan have been told that public health nurse developmental checks have been withdrawn. Three-month checks, nine-to-eleven-month checks, two-year checks and four-year checks have all been cancelled. I have a constituent who is 36 weeks pregnant and who tells me she is terrified of not getting the service when her newborn baby arrives. I have a friend whose newborn third child will not get the service her previous two children got in Lucan. Parents are coming to me asking why their children do not deserve this public health service their taxes pay for. We need this rectified. How can the Tánaiste intervene and make sure this service is brought back into action in Lucan?
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue and bring it to my attention. I will have to make inquiries with the Minister for Health about it. We have a large number of public health nurses in the State. They generally provide a very good service so I am not sure why those cancellations have happened but I will make sure the Minister replies to the Deputy directly on it.
The review of the school bus transport system is under way. I urge greater flexibility and expansion of that service. We see how the traffic disappears when schools are off and we know that getting children onto public transport at an early age creates good habits. We know about the emissions from traffic and the problems it causes. I urge flexibility and expansion of the system as part of that review.
I thank the Deputy. The school transport scheme at present caters for more than 121,000 children, 15,500 of whom have special needs. The Deputy will be aware that those availing of the scheme for this term will have it for free as part of the €67 million back-to-school package agreed by Government recently. I understand the submissions to input into the review closed in February of this year but if the Deputy wishes to give me his views on expanding eligibility, I can pass them on to the steering group.
I welcome the condemnation, as a woman in politics, of the hate-fest that has happened in the North. To see my party leader, Deputy McDonald, as well as Michelle O'Neill, Naomi Long and many others, treated in the way they are sends out a very negative message for encouraging women into politics.
I want to ask about school transport. I welcome the removal of fees but that will lead to extra demand. What provisions have been made to cater for that demand by increasing supply? How many more seats will be available on the bus?
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for his wise philosophical words earlier. As Whip of the Fine Gael group, I thank everybody for their contribution to the running of the Parliament and I wish everyone on all sides of the Houses happy summer holidays. Please come to Kerry and spend money there. Members are more than welcome. We may have lost Fungie, but we have gained a greenway recently so I guarantee Members will have a good time.
I ask about the burden of income taxation on working individuals and families. That burden makes this difficult time even more difficult. There is a great opportunity in the upcoming budget to make a big bang impact in relation to the universal social charge, tax bands and income tax rates. Will that be prioritised to give working individuals and families a well-deserved break in the upcoming budget?
This has been recognised by the Government. We have doubled the size of the tax measures that are afforded for in the summer economic statement. The Government has always recognised the role that taxation can play in helping those on low or middle wages keep the wage increases they get due to their hard work. We will in budget 2023 continue with the progress we have made and put together a package that helps. At the same time, I am confident it will avoid adding to the inflationary challenges we have. The Deputy's point is well made. We understand that many workers not in receipt of support through our social welfare system also face higher costs and more pressure on their wallets and purses. We will do our best in the budget to help them.
Uber, a company we read knowingly flouted laws, misled people and sold a lie, put a huge effort into influencing transport policy here. It found a sympathetic audience in Fine Gael but, thanks to the resistance of the regulator, it did not succeed. Recently, the Tánaiste opened the door to the company again when he pointed towards the possibility of ride-sharing as a solution to the current constraints in late-night taxi and public transport. The National Transport Authority, NTA, has an ongoing recruitment campaign. It is trying to encourage people into the taxi industry. Fine Gael's cosy relationship with Uber undermines that. The Tánaiste's public utterances matter. Who would invest in a taxi with that cloud hanging over the sector? Will he on behalf of the Government categorically ruled out the introduction of a deregulated Uber-model ride-sharing system here in line with the firm recommendation of the regulator?
At present, there are no plans by Government to introduce a ride-sharing system in Ireland, whether it is Uber, Lyft or any of the many companies that offer that service. However, I have used it in other countries. I think approximately 10,000 cities in the world have ride-sharing in some form. I say to people travelling over the summer to try it out in the city they visit, talk to the driver and then form an opinion as to whether it is a good idea or not.
Yesterday, at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, we heard about the Unified Patent Court system and its potential for Ireland. It could be worth between €500,000 and €1.5 billion per annum. There is a need to set up a referendum here to ratify the system.
What is the situation with regard to this referendum? Legislation is required to hold a referendum. Where are we with that? When will we see this legislation?
The European patent court has now been established and is a reality. We have signed the treaty but have not yet ratified it and therefore cannot take part. We want to take part but a referendum will be required. We have not yet set a date for that. It will either be next year or concurrent with the local and European elections the year after that. A unit has been established in my Department to begin preparations for that.
I have raised this issue time and again through questions and Topical Issue debates and during Questions on Promised Legislation but to no avail. The Wildlife (Amendment) Bill 2016 passed all Stages in the Dáil and in the Seanad, where three amendments were made. The Ceann Comhairle has made it clear that it is possible to recommit a Bill at the Stage it was at when a general election was called in January 2020 but we have not yet had sight of any proposed counter-amendments from the Government and no indication as to when the Bill will be reintroduced and recommitted to the House for what will be a very short debate on three amendments, thereby allowing this important legislation to finally become law.
I will raise the issue of public dental treatment in Kerry. The main dental treatment service provider is flooded with patients and is not taking any new patients until at least September or October. With regard to orthodontics, there are 3,033 patients in Cork and Kerry waiting to be assessed. Some 2,355 are waiting for treatment, 1,800 of whom have now been waiting for longer than two years, while 177 have been waiting longer than four years. I recently came across the case of a constituent, a teenager, who continued to wear a mask to school because they were so embarrassed about their treatment. That child is in sixth year in school. Will the Tánaiste ask the HSE to take action, step in and provide more dentists under the public system to alleviate these problems?
My understanding is that there have been negotiations with the Irish Dental Association about this. Additional funding for public dental services was provided in the budget. I am not sure where we are in the deployment of that funding but I will certainly let the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, know that the Deputy raised this issue today and ask him to come back to him with a more detailed reply.
Yesterday, in her remarks on her retirement, Ms Justice Irvine commented on how the lack of judges was hampering access to justice. We see this at every level of our justice system. A solicitor, Mr. Gareth Noble, reported on a family list in the District Court in Meath which could not be cleared despite the single judge working a significant number of extra hours. One case involved a man who was making his fourth attempt to lodge an application for an order for access to his children. This was his fourth time going into the court and, once again, his case was not reached. We do not have enough judges for this man to be able to get even a hearing on access to his children. This is hampering justice at every single level. Will the Government use the budget to invest in significant numbers of extra judges so that we can have the effective access to justice that is essential in any democracy?
A review of this issue is under way. The Deputy will know as well as I do that it is not as simple as providing extra judges. We need to make sure there is court space and the court staff required to enable judges to do their job. We need to make sure that, if there are going to be additional judges and Courts Service staff, we see an improvement in the length of time it takes people to get through the courts system. I was a member of the Government that established the Court of Appeal. We did that on the basis that it would clear backlogs but it just moved the backlog from the Supreme Court to the Court of Appeal. I do not regret doing that but we always have to be a little sceptical when we are told that more staff and resources will mean better results for people. I know some solicitors are critical of our judges and say they work shorter hours and shorter terms than judges in other countries while getting paid more. We have to look at the issue in the round.
I seek an update on Enfield Community College. We have been told that the school project will go to tender later this year. Will the Tánaiste confirm that is the case? Has a framework of project management design team consultants been appointed yet? This framework would comprise architects and civil, structural, mechanical and electrical engineers. Has a contract notice to establish a design and build contractor framework been done? Online searches do not show Enfield Community College listed on the National Development Finance Agency website. Parents and teachers urgently need to know whether the school will be operational for the 2023-24 school year. If work does not commence soon, it will not meet the operational target date of 2023. There are children depending on the building of this school. The teachers, the parents and the community are very worried that children will be left in limbo. Will the Tánaiste clarify whether the school will be ready for the 2023-24 school year?
The planning and building unit within the Department of Education is involved in the designing and building of schools. If the Deputy gives me the details of the project, I can check with that unit and come back to him on it.
I understand that the €1,000 Covid recognition payment has been made to clerical and other staff at Ennis Hospital. This is very welcome but it has been brought to my attention that nurses who are based at the hospital have yet to receive this payment. I ask that the Tánaiste raise this issue with the Minister for Health and ensure that these hard-working front-line staff, the nurses based at Ennis Hospital, receive this payment as soon as possible.
My understanding is that more than 70,000 healthcare workers have already received the pandemic bonus payment of €1,000. It is quite straightforward in the case of direct employees of the HSE who work in a clinical setting. It is more complicated in other cases. I do not know the exact circumstances with regard to Ennis Hospital but if the Deputy wants to pass the details on to my office, I will make sure the issue is followed up on.
This week, early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme providers were again protesting outside Leinster House. They have committed to protesting again in the future if needs be. They have consistently highlighted the plight of smaller providers with regard to the funding received by all childcare providers. They do not dispute the overall Government package provided for this sector but are asking for a recalibration of that funding. Larger providers seem to be benefiting far more than ECCE scheme-only providers. Contracts are due to be sent out in early August. We ask that they be looked at ahead of that time to ensure that a fairer share of that money gets around, with a particular focus on the ECCE scheme providers who are being short-changed at the moment.
I am familiar with the issue and have been lobbied on it by some childcare providers in my constituency. While I know the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, is examining the matter, I do not have an update on it at the moment.