Wednesday, 21 September 2022
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
Once again, on Monday evening, residents in the housing estate of Cherry Orchard heard the screaming of tyres outside their homes. Parents ran to get their kids in from the garden for fear of the madness which has been happening all too regularly in recent weeks as criminals rallied their robbed cars up and down the roads, cheered on by a mob. Thankfully, despite being very shook up, the gardaí in the only squad car in the area, which was rammed, suffered only minor injuries.
What is going to be done to ensure the community in Cherry Orchard can be protected, ensure there is more than one squad car for the area and ensure that what we saw on Monday cannot be repeated again? What will be done to ensure that a task force similar to that in the north inner city is set up and that the regeneration and investment, long promised for the area, is delivered immediately to show the people of Cherry Orchard that they are not abandoned by the State?
I share the Deputy’s abhorrence of what happened in Cherry Orchard the other night. In response to his question on what the State can do and is doing, first, in response to a number of incidents earlier this year, both Cherry Orchard and Ballyfermot local Garda management immediately enhanced their high-visibility policing presence, together with the support and assistance of the Dublin Metropolitan Region regional public order unit over the course of a number of weekends. This high visibility is continuing. I am advised that earlier this year, Garda management implemented and has continued a high-profile policing presence plan to reassure the community and to secure confidence in the policing in the area. This plan includes additional high-visibility pedal cycle patrols in the environs of the local shopping area, additional mobile presence in the community, support of the regional divisional roads policing unit and increased armed presence through patrolling by the regional support unit and armed support unit. There is also patrolling of open areas and the canal by the Garda mounted units.
Operation Préachán is also in operation since 20 August this year and focuses on tackling car-related crime and antisocial behaviour. As a result of this operation, seven individuals have been arrested and brought before the courts, with strict bail conditions imposed. It is a very serious issue.
We in the Labour Party are calling for the Government to introduce an immediate ban on evictions to protect renters and stop people from entering homelessness this winter as we face into a bleak winter ahead. We are seeing with alarming frequency distressing stories of families literally left out in the cold. We have seen just this week reports of a family sleeping in a tent in Herbert Park in our own constituency. We in the Labour Party have called on the Government to grasp the nettle on housing. We simply have not seen sufficiently urgent action. We did welcome the endowing of local authorities with powers to allow them to buy rental properties and to keep renters in a home when the landlord chooses to sell, but whenever families contact me who are facing eviction, I have yet to see that policy having positive effect for them. We need to see more radical and urgent action taken by the Government, and we need to see a temporary but immediate ban on evictions to protect renters and protect families facing eviction this winter.
We have to address this issue and particularly the related issue of homelessness. There are a number of measures that the Government is looking at. Change is planned on the advertising of property in short-let Airbnb-type facilities in terms of restrictions to make sure those types of properties come back into the rented sector. There are changes to the rules so people are now entitled to three months notice rather than the previous 28 days, even in short lets, to avoid someone being evicted through that short-term method. There are changes in the law so local authorities through their financing mechanisms are able to purchase properties which landlords are threatening to sell in order to prevent eviction. Those three specific examples of measures the Government is taking are ways in which we can reduce this huge problem.
Back in May, when I raised the ongoing and non-evidence-based restrictions on water births, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, told me:
Our maternity system is not sufficiently midwife-led. I think it should be.
I agree with him. Last month, a HSE report with no input from midwives recommended limiting home births to women who live within 30 minutes of a maternity hospital. In effect, that would mean people in large swathes of west Cork, Kerry, Clare, Roscommon, Wicklow, Donegal and Monaghan, as well as substantial parts of Galway, Mayo, Tipperary and other rural areas would not be allowed by the State to have home births. The Midwives Association of Ireland strongly opposes this restriction. They point out that the most current evidence does not support the 30-minute distance restriction. This is only currently a recommendation from the HSE. It needs to be halted immediately. The Minister for Health needs to engage with the midwives organisation, patient advocates and others to develop an approach that is genuinely patient-centred.
Today in Cork city and county, workers who provide key community services at the Irish Wheelchair Association, EmployAbility and St. Joseph's Foundation are striking for one day. These are section 39 workers, most of whom have not received a pay increase in 14 years. These workers are demanding a pay increase and restoration of the link with public sector pay. In so doing, they are acting to defend services which have been undermined by stagnant pay rates and which face a crisis of recruitment and retention. Tomorrow, strikes will take place in the west of Ireland and, on Friday, in both Cork and Kerry. All in all, 1,000 workers will be included in the action. The Minister cannot credibly pass the buck to the direct employers. These are section 39 health and social care workers and the State has a responsibility to provide sufficient funding to allow for decent pay increases. Will the Minister make provision for that funding in the budget next week or will he be stubborn and bloody-minded, and provoke the escalation of this action, which nobody wants?
First, I acknowledge the important, critical and great work that everyone in the section 39 organisations does. I recognise the example of their critical role in that even in this period of strife, their union representatives, as I understand, are looking to ensure essential services continue and that they minimise the impact on service users and their families. Such an impact is not their intent in any way. There is a real issue regarding these workers' pay and structural arrangements and how they are organised. One thing that is clear is that, in the current environment, the Government is not the direct employer. Their employers are separate entities that have responsibility legally and in every other way for these matters. They are not included within the Building Momentum agreement. That does not mean we do not think they should have similar rights, pay and other conditions to workers who are doing similar work. That is an issue they will have to address through the employment and labour organisations of the State. It is something over which we do not and cannot have direct control.
Electricity standing charges have increased for most people by upwards of €300, regardless of energy usage. The standing charge is supposed to reflect the fixed costs associated with providing electricity and gas. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, mentioned this morning putting in place a moratorium rather than bringing forward emergency legislation, as is his duty, to protect the people of this country. We brought emergency legislation through this House to deal with the Covid pandemic. People are in perilous conditions now and the Minister is refusing to bring forward emergency legislation to deal with it. He might tell the people why he has ordered a review we do not have time for and is refusing to bring forward emergency legislation to deal with this gouging that is happening on top of the gouging by the Government. It reduced VAT to 9% but its tax take has increased because of the trebling of the standing charge. Will he be truthful and honest about this?
There is a whole series of emergency measures we need to take, including direct payments to households, investing in social welfare contributions, emergency support measures for business and the long list of measures, which I will not read out again, to protect the most vulnerable customers, all of which have been done on an emergency basis. If we try to reconfigure our entire energy system by way of emergency legislation, I do not believe we would get it right. We are right to address the immediate needs of households that are in particular difficulty by protecting, supporting and providing for them.
Every person and citizen in this country was rightly concerned by what they saw happening in west Dublin the other night. There is a situation in Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir in County Tipperary whereby we do not have enough gardaí. We are in a frightful state of lack of numbers. Community policing is the only way to deal with these issues. I welcome the newly appointed Sergeant Denis Ryan to Clonmel but the gardaí there have to cover a large area and there is a lack of numbers. The powers that be in An Garda Síochána must stand up and be accountable. I have huge question marks over the stewardship of Commissioner Harris because we have told him this is happening. I certainly told him so two years ago. People in Clonmel are afraid to walk the streets during the day because of open drug dealing, blackguarding and intimidation. There are families and gangs controlling the drug scene and people are frightened out of their lives. There are punishment beatings and everything else. We have seen this happening in other towns and now it is in Clonmel. It is a fine town with fine people who deserve the protection of the Garda, but the force does not have the numbers or the resources to deal with it.
I agree with the Deputy that one of the responses to this issue must be the prioritisation of community policy. Some of the actions I mentioned earlier regarding Cherry Orchard could equally apply in towns and cities right across the country. I agree that one of the key investments we should make within the €2 billion in funding that was provided to An Garda Síochána in budget 2022 is in community policing. I recommend that the Commissioner and his officers look at how we can reinforce the spending on the community policing presence in local areas. That is the best way of addressing the issue.
Earlier today, my colleagues and I participated in the formal launch of the Irish Neutrality League, which is a civil society campaign to bring pressure to bear on the Government to assert Ireland's neutrality positively on the world stage and to be a voice for peace and human rights. The league also wants the copper-fastening of neutrality enshrined in the Constitution. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, referred earlier to reflection. Has he reflected on the proposals from the Irish Neutrality League and is he prepared to sign its statement? We have quite a number of people already and it is an ongoing campaign. I understand the Government is absolutely behind our neutrality and I do not see why it cannot sign up to the Irish Neutrality League.
I would be careful about committing to a change to the Constitution, upon which we should reflect. I do not disagree with the sentiment or intention of the Irish Neutrality League but I would be very slow to sign up to it. We have learned in this House that when it comes to constitutional reform, it is always best to think, first, what is the question and then what is the answer and the wording. That is not something that is easily or quickly done. Something I believe in and am proud of is that our seat on the UN Security Council has been used in a way to respect and recommit to our neutrality. The approach we have taken to this war in Europe whereby, unlike many other European countries, we have not provided weapons directly to Ukraine was an important test of our neutrality and military non-alignment. We are not neutral on the issue that is at stake, which is the freedom of the Ukrainian people to have their own jurisdiction and sovereignty. However, in terms of our status as a small island nation and our place in the world, I agree with the Deputy that our position is one of being non-aligned militarily and neutral in that sense. I very much commit to that continuing.
We are speaking about the price of energy. One of the core aspects of that is the fact electricity is priced at the wholesale price of gas in the European market. Discussions are taking place on this at European level. What form does the Minister expect the tax on the windfall gains of the energy companies above their cost of production to take? How quickly does he expect a decision to be taken and in what form will it come to the Government? Will it be in the form of a fund we receive from Europe and, if so, how quickly will we be able to disburse it to hard-pressed households and businesses? Or will it come in the form of a reduced electricity charge when users get their bills? I am asking about the form and timeframe of the support. People are under huge pressure and we are looking at a myriad of issues here in terms of costs. There are energy companies producing electricity at a fraction of the cost they are charging-----
Proposals were discussed at the Energy Council on 9 September and the Commission produced more specific proposals on 14 September. The Energy Council will meet again on 30 September, when I expect us to sign off on the proposals. They are not finalised and discussions are still going on at COREPER but the broad outline is clear. We will seek to take that windfall gain from the electricity markets from those generators that are not generating gas, where there is a surplus. The Commissioner is suggesting that should be done where the surplus is above a price of €180 per megawatt hour. The Commission leaves it up to countries as to what to do with such a gain. In my view, it should go back directly to the consumers. We should use the electricity bill payments system to help reduce costs rather than the proposal for a cap we discussed earlier.
Yesterday, the Government published its summary report on the sectoral emissions ceilings for the two carbon budgets that have been agreed through to 2030. It is clear we have a huge challenge ahead of us in all sectors but I want to speak about transport. The climate action plan has a transport section and there is some really good stuff in it in terms of getting more people onto public transport and more people walking and cycling. However, we could do all of that and still not get the transport emissions reductions we need. Unless there is both the carrot and the stick, we probably will not hit the 50% target to which we must get. We need to talk about a national modal shift target and demand management, by which I mean congestion charging, road space reallocation, parking levies and all the things that were talked about in the past. Unless we talk about them seriously now, we will not achieve our emissions reduction targets.
I think transport is going to be the most challenging when it comes to energy, such is the scale of investment going into alternatives. It is the same with land use but, in that case, I believe the market will bring us a long way towards where we need to go. In transport, however, it is difficult because we are dealing with patterns that have been baked in more than 50 or 60 years of dispersed settlement.
We will do this in four ways: by switching fuels towards electricity and those types of biofuels I mentioned earlier; shifting towards public transport, active travel and walking; reducing the overall volume of travel by promoting the town centre first policy and having more concentrated development which makes better use of oil resources; and by shifting to car sharing, recognising that most vehicles are parked for 95% of the time. Regarding how we will deliver these outcomes, the Government's approach of providing for active travel in the budget and aiming to switch towards a 2:1 ratio of investment in support of public transport is the correct way to go. I do not believe that a congestion charging system would be as easily introduced. I think we are right to promote BusConnects in all five cities as a way to promote this urgent modal shift.
I raise the issue of haematology services in University Hospital Kerry, UHK. The Minister of State will surely agree that people with blood cancers should be treated as close to home as possible, especially as they require multiple visits to hospital. Basic services, however, such as bone marrow testing, cannot be done in Tralee. Therefore, I ask the Minister of State to ensure that the haematology day ward will be opened. The provision of ten beds or chairs would do to establish that unit. Additionally, the isolator which ensures that chemotherapy products are prepared and dispensed in a sterile environment in Cork University Hospital was inoperable for a fortnight recently. This resulted in essential, stressful treatments being deferred for all the people with those difficulties in the south-west region. One machine should be provided in UHK so the hospitals can work together. Most importantly, laboratory staff must be recruited. The current complement of two haematologists is not enough. Critically, if the laboratory - which must be accredited by the accreditation board - is lost, the provision of major services in areas such as maternity, surgery, medical care and accident and emergency will not be able to go ahead.
I thank the Deputy for his constant advocacy concerning UHK. He raised the issue concerning haematology and also referred to an isolator for chemotherapy. It would be helpful if he could put this information into an email and I will ask the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to respond directly. Three or four issues were raised, but I do not have details available here on the floor to enable me to respond.
I hesitate to again raise the issue of school transport, particularly given that the Minister has very helpfully and correctly waived charges for eligible students. A couple of problems remain, however, in respect of the logistics for students with concessionary tickets. In some cases, there is room on a bus but students cannot be carried for some reason I am unaware of. In other cases, parents are willing to pay and have no problem doing so. There is a need here to try to accommodate people as best we can, particularly because both parents must now work. The possibility of a parent having to give up work or a student having to withdraw from education is something we should try to avert. Can we do something to assist these students?
I thank the Deputy for raising this subject. It is one of real concern, particularly for those parents and children who were expecting to be able to get concessionary tickets but are unable to do so. I listened intently to the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, speaking on a television programme last night about some parts of the details she spoke about in the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. It is important for us to reflect on the fact that we have seen a 24% increase in the number of entitled students going on buses, which is a good news story. We have also seen a 27% increase in concessionary arrangements. The Minister is seeking to discuss with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath - and I will be supportive of her in doing so - the possibility of ensuring we can help others who may not have been able to afford this service for a variety of different circumstances. The wider issue here is in the context of review and reform. As it happens, I had a meeting with the members of the board of Bus Éireann last week. My sense of where we may, should and will consider going is in the direction of exploring how we can integrate our school bus transport system into our other public transport systems in rural Ireland. I refer to how we can develop the two strands together in complementary ways.
Ireland is one of the few countries that impose a high level of tax on print and digital newspapers. NewsBrands Ireland and Local Ireland, representing our national and regional newspapers, such as The Anglo-Celtand The Northern Standard, have cogently outlined the crucial need to reduce the VAT rate on newspapers, in print and digital formats, to 0%. Despite our differences with newspapers at times, they contribute enormously to democratic, social, cultural, sporting, economic and business life. The journalism produced by the news publishers who are members of NewsBrands Ireland and Local Ireland is read by 82% of the population. Significantly, this represents four out of five adults. The viability of these publications and associated jobs is at stake. The Government must act in this budget by helping to ensure the continued viability of this sector. People must not be subjected to a reliance on unregulated social media for information and news, or, in many instances, misinformation and fake news.
I fully agree with the Deputy. To back up his argument, and particularly the last point he made, I believe that if we become reliant on social media feeds where we only hear from people of the same views, that will result in a deepening sense of division and a coarsening of society. It will lead to a disparaging of other people in a way that is not good for our health, our souls or our future. Dr. Mike Ryan from the World Health Organization said at a conference yesterday that he has never before felt as threatened as he has in recent times. He was referring to the specific context of Covid-19 in recent years, but also to the wider sense of how stories are told and of the threats that exist in the social media environment if it is not a space for regulated journalism that asks the hard questions, provides a different perspective and presents different information in a way that is mediated by professional journalists. This is what our newspapers do, and this is why it is important that they survive and continue to develop to fulfil this critical role in our democracy. I support the Deputy's approach.
I raise the issue of the home care cash grant, which is administered by the HSE. It is offered to older people who have been allocated home care hours but for whom the HSE has failed to recruit staff to fulfil those hours. Therefore, the onus is put on older people or their spouses to advertise for carers and to recruit them. This means, potentially, bringing strangers into those people's homes and having cash on hand to pay carers. Recipients of this support are then meant to reclaim their money through the grant. This situation also puts the onus on the older person to ensure that all aspects of the employee's entitlements are adhered to, such as PAYE, leave and work permits, where applicable. This aspect must be included on their home insurance. It is also a requirement for the carer employed to have received training in moving and handling skills. How on earth are older people supposed to know what training a carer has? How are they supposed to do all this paperwork, on top of being vulnerable in their homes and having their elderly spouses look after them? This scheme is not fit for purpose and should be abolished.
I think there is some confusion here. Personalised budgets are only facilitated for people with disabilities; they are not part of the older persons' model. As we speak, 55,000 people will receive home care at a cost of €670 million annually. The tender for these services is currently up for renewal and a new call for tenders will be issued on 1 January 2023. We are considering including personalised budgets in that tender. As I speak now, however, older people receiving home care have that allocated through the public health nurse, via public, private and voluntary providers, and there is no opportunity for older people to avail of personalised budgets. There is, though, an opportunity for people with disabilities and with personal hours to avail of such personalised budgets.
I welcome the announcement of the increase in the minimum wage. I encourage the Government to accelerate it towards being a living wage. Given the inordinate pressures on SMEs, which are now responsible for employing, with other companies, some 2.5 million people nationwide, I ask that measures specific to SMEs be included in next week's budget to enable them to offset a proportion of the cost of the increase in the minimum wage. While it is important that we have these increases, it is also important that we maintain employment. In acknowledging the inordinate demands on all households and SMEs, we must try to protect jobs. In that regard, I ask that a proportion of the cost of the increase in the minimum wage be allowed to be offset against other outlays.
I will certainly pass the Deputy's reflections on to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe. Returning to what I said in response to an earlier question, one of the measures we must introduce in the budget is some sort of support for SME employers because of the energy price increases. This would be done very much with a view to try to avoid job losses. This might be a better way of approaching this issue, rather than the State trying to provide some sort of rebate on the minimum wage, or some other similar mechanism, that would be complex, expensive and might not be delivered in a timely manner. It might be better to do this as part of the wider cost of living supports that we will be delivering in the budget.
Households, businesses and people everywhere are terrified by the exorbitant cost of the electricity bills they are receiving.
They see where the ESB companies' profits have trebled and their standing charges have trebled, and they ask whether the Government has any control. The Government has a 90% share in ESB. The Minister states the way to go is electric. Is the Government to let this continue? Where is the energy regulator? Has the Government any control over what is happening? Is this to be allowed continue?
The Government says it will get it back. Why did the Government let them take it in the first place?
I can honestly tell the Government that there are old women now afraid to boil the kettle. Traditionally, in rural Ireland, the kettle was always at the ready to make a sup of tea for the people but the facts are that old people are afraid to boil the kettle now because they are seeing the bills that they are getting and they are absolutely terrified. I am asking the Minister whether the Government has any control over what is happening.
The energy regulator has a key role. She is constantly looking at what the ESB is doing, particularly in ESB Networks and EirGrid, the other transmission company, to make sure that the investment needed to get that kettle to boil does not lead to an excess profit to the company. She is involved directly in making sure that the return they get is not an excess profit but that we have the ability to make sure every kettle and every light turns on every time we flick the switch.
In May 2019, the people of Limerick voted in a plebiscite on the issue of a democratically-elected mayor. Three years have passed since then. We were supposed to have had that election. I just want to know where the legislation is. I understand it is in the autumn legislative programme, but is the Minister confident that it will be published soon and that we will see what is in there? Is he confident with the powers in the legislation are what the people thought they were voted for, that is, that the mayor will have the devolved powers needed to make it success? I believe that if Limerick is a success, other towns and cities will follow our lead and do that themselves. When is the legislation being taken? Is the Minister happy with what will be in it? Will there be a campaign to promote it when it is done?
I agree with the Deputy. My party supported the referendum and recommended a vote in favour. I only wish Cork had done the same and that Dublin had a similar opportunity.
It is frustrating that it has taken longer than we might have liked and expected but I am confident in the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke. Certainly, there is no obstacle as I see it in terms of the nature of powers or the mechanisms.
Over the past six years more than €41 million has been returned to the State through cash and assets seized by An Garda Síochána and the Criminal Assets Bureau. It is welcome that the Community Safety Innovation Fund is using that cash to plough into communities. Does the Minister agree that the budget next week must drastically increase this fund from €2 million allocated last year to allow for an increase in early intervention and youth diversion programmes?
I, too, want to raise the issue of school buses. We are three weeks into the school year and there is still no sign of the school bus debacle being solved. I have sent dozens of emails to Bus Éireann and the Minister for Education outlining many cases. Many of these cases involve hardship and health issues. I have not even had the courtesy of a reply and I am wondering when I can get that. Surely something can be done, with thousands of cars off the road, to expand school bus capacity.
As there is new evidence of war crimes in previously-occupied parts of Ukraine, the response from President Putin is to hold four referenda over this weekend in the still-occupied parts of Ukraine to escalate this conflict and declare these Russian territories. Added to that is the threat of nuclear action portraying the EU as the aggressor and the conscription of 300,000 new troops, together with tougher rules on desertion. What is the Government's response to this gross escalation of this conflict?
I was talking to a locum pharmacist working in County Louth. A lady who was on the drug payments scheme came in to him. She had a medical card but previously it had been taken off her. She had a medical condition. She was late for her medication. He wanted to know why and she said that she did not have the money in her account. She was taking the medication every second day, which, obviously, would not suffice. She still had not a sufficient amount in her account. In fairness, the locum paid for it. He said that he did not get into pharmacy to refuse people medication. This is a working woman with a family, under severe pressures like a significant number of people. Along with cost-of-living actions, we also need to examine the drug payments scheme and even how people are issued medical cards. In some cases, they have been taken off them. The locum spoke about the fact that a number of people have come in whose card states that they have a medical card up until 2024 but then it is refused. There are people with particular conditions who will need particular help.
There were four questions. First, Deputy Richmond made the case. It backs up what was said earlier around trying to understand the problems in our towns and cities, including anti-social behaviour and our youth, and trying to intervene early. As I understand it, the fund he mentioned would be directed towards that approach and that would seem to make the case for that. I cannot commit to what will be in the budget but he Deputy made the case well.
With regard to Deputy Ryan, I am not sure if she was able to attend the meeting of Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science this morning. The Deputy may not be a member of the committee but there is always the possibility of joining in at the end. However, I will pass her specific details on to the Minister for Education. I am sure those details will join a list from many other Deputies here but it is important to have the specifics.
With regard to Deputy Bruton, what has been uncovered, it would appear, in those graves where there seems to have been real questions of international crimes against humanity makes the case for international law courts. In a sense, we as a country, coming from the neutral position, as I stated earlier, have a particular role and responsibility to stand up for those international institutions. It is through those mechanisms in Geneva, which have the first call that we should add our voices to the international court mechanisms to condemn and to convict where the evidence can be developed. I believe that is the most important response.
Finally, in response to Deputy Ó Murchú, I do not have the specifics regarding how we might revise or look at the drug payments scheme, but certainly will pass on the suggestion he made to the relevant Minister.
Before proceeding to the motions before us, I want to note for the information of the House that yesterday, after Leaders' Questions and during Questions on Policy or Legislation, it was stated that the Chair was not providing protection to the Government from Opposition heckling and interruptions. Given the considerable significance of that assertion to how I do my job, I undertook to review the record of what happened in the course of yesterday's business and, together with the Clerk of the Dáil, I have reviewed the record of yesterday's Leaders' Questions and Order of Business.
What we saw during that review was a typical session with interruptions and heckling from many sides. What I also saw was the now normal habit of some leaders ignoring the Chair, its requests and its remonstrations. Reverting to the Chair only when the temperature rises in the Chamber in light of the forgoing is, in my view, understandably futile and unfair. I, therefore, reject outright the claim made against the Chair and I exhort Members to co-operate to the fullest with us.