Wednesday, 23 November 2022
Ceisteanna ar Pholasaí nó ar Reachtaíocht - Questions on Policy or Legislation
Dr. Gabriel Scally will today outline the recommendations of the CervicalCheck report that have yet to be implemented in full. The lack of urgency and the foot-dragging of the Government in delivering legislation on open disclosure and ensuring the return of testing to Ireland, and the effect this has had on the women concerned, are unforgivable. The Taoiseach gave a commitment last week, following the death of Vicky Phelan, that open disclosure legislation would be amended to cover the incidents that led to the CervicalCheck scandal and then passed by the end of the year. A week has gone by and there has been no progress. In fact, the HSE is talking about meetings between the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, and the Minister happening in the next couple of weeks. That is far too slow. We only have three sitting weeks left before we rise for Christmas. I ask the Taoiseach to intervene to ensure the necessary meetings happen this week, we have the amendment and we are in a position to put the open disclosure legislation on the Statute Book before we rise for Christmas, as the Taoiseach committed to doing last week.
To be fair, I think there are a lot of positives in Dr. Scally's report and he does pay tribute to the Department and the Ministers in terms of progress that has been made. He does, however, also identify the absolute necessity for absolute candour in respect of the medical profession and the health services in terms of absolute disclosure to patients. In that respect, the meetings the Deputy referred to were held last week. The Minister has been clear. I am engaging with him on this issue, and with the Chief Whip and the Attorney General, and working with officials from the Department of Health, in respect of having the amendments for consideration on Report Stage by 7 December so we could get the legislation progressed that week.
The publication of the Scally report today will be a marker for all to see what actions can and must now be taken by the Government. Last week, when we all paid tribute to the late Vicky Phelan, the enormous legacy she left and the huge work she did on behalf of women affected by cervical cancer, all of us looked for precise actions. I very much welcome the Taoiseach's outline of dates for amendments but we will need to see a very clear timeline from the Government on all the actions to be taken on foot of the Scally report, which, as we know, has just been published today. We owe that not only to Vicky Phelan but to all of those in the 221+ group and all those who fought so hard to see a better system of cervical checks put in place and strong and robust supports for those enduring cervical cancer and those who have gone through the system to date. We will need to see a clear timeline for all the actions to be taken on foot of this report.
Following the publication of the report, I understand there will be a presentation to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health, but we have no issue regarding having a wider debate in the House, and statements should be organised in respect of the report. The key issue is that legislation is required, but also cultural change in respect of absolute disclosure and candour. Progress has been made but there has been, historically, resistance to enshrining this in legislation. I do not think it is in the political house, so to speak, but there is an opportunity now, for once and for all, to deal with this issue in this legislation. The amendments on Report Stage will be very clear in that respect. This is the desire of the Oireachtas, as articulated by the all-party committee as far back as 2015, I think. We must follow through on that for once and for all now for the reasons the Deputy has given.
I appeal to the Taoiseach in the context of his role and the responsibility he has for the north-east inner city task force. In the Gallery above us, we have Bobby, Reuben and Christy, along with their coach, Steven, from the Corinthians Boxing Club. This club represents the very best of the north inner-city. More than 40 children train there three nights a week, plying their craft and developing the discipline and responsibility they need. This boxing club is about to close because it cannot afford its electricity bills. Its equipment is not up to standard, but the club is not going to chase children around for subs during a cost-of-living crisis. I appeal to the Taoiseach to do everything in his power to keep this boxing club open because if it closes, the north inner city will feel the effects. This club really is on its knees and I appeal to the Taoiseach to keep it open.
Whatever I can do, I will do. I want to keep a boxing club of that calibre and quality open because it provides wonderful opportunities in the sport of boxing to young people. I will ask the Minister of State with special responsibility for sport, Deputy Chambers, to follow up with the Deputy. I think we should also follow up with Dublin City Council as well. Grants have been allocated to sporting bodies-----
-----been allocated to sporting authorities around the energy issue, to the national parent bodies, as I understand it. This money will be allocated at the end of December. We must try to find a way to ensure that clubs like this get supports. There should be a facility through the local authority to sort these things out.
This Saturday, at 1 o'clock in Parnell Square, tens of thousands of people will gather to march under the Raise the Roof banner to demand action on the housing emergency. The Government consistently refuses to call what we are living through a housing emergency. Ten years of failure by consecutive Governments on this issue have created the alienation and despair we are now witnessing breaking out and filling a vacuum left in this country. These ten years have created bitter fruits that have allowed fascists and the far right to exploit the refugee crisis. We have a housing crisis, not a refugee crisis, and this Government and previous Governments are responsible for it. Will the Government take responsibility for this crisis, declare an emergency and use all of the emergency powers available to deal with what is an absolute atrocity being committed on the people of this country and those seeking refuge with us as well?
I am sorry. The Deputy is getting into semantics again. I put it to her that when we bring legislation forward, in the next week or two, I expect her to support it.
I raise the issue of the health services in County Galway and the Saolta University Health Care Group, which covers six counties and serves a population of over 800,000 people. We had a meeting in Galway last Thursday night. It was organised by Cancer Care West and supported by the National Breast Cancer Research Institute. It highlighted the issues that are going on. We have four projects to be undertaken in Galway. These are the accident and emergency department, which incorporates the women and children's block; the replacement laboratory building; the cancer centre and a new ward block; and a decision must also be made on an elective hospital.
We have an accident and emergency department which has been demolished to make way for a new one, but no planning permission has even been applied for. The go-ahead has not even been given to apply for planning permission. We are doing things in a haphazard way and creating a problem for the health service not only in the five counties of Connacht in the west, but also in Donegal. It is time we fast-tracked these projects and forgot about the spending codes.
As regards the idea that the Taoiseach of the day is being asked to tell a hospital to go and apply for planning permission, there is something wrong there. I do not know what the issue is. I take the Deputy's point, though. Speaking more broadly, we want to provide additional services and, in particular, to improve cancer services. The Deputy is aware, in the context of the radiation oncology programme, that a €56 million project is currently under construction at University Hospital Galway, UHG, and not before its time. That is happening.
It is a massive, state-of-the-art radiation oncology project. It is a very positive thing. I have met with groups. There needs to be proper engagement with the Saolta University Health Care Group and the HSE-----
On 22 November, parents of more than 180 children who attend the child and family centre in Bantry received a letter informing them of the decision to move the entire children's disability services out of the child and family centre and into a section of the Bantry adult day care centre.
This decision was taken without any consultation with parents. The purpose-built child and family centre in Bantry opened in 2011. The entire cost of €1.3 million was funded by the local community.
The parents strongly oppose this move on the basis that the purpose-built centre is a stand-alone building which affords dignity, respect and privacy for the children and their families. Over 180 children are being discommoded to facilitate the temporary relocation of a small number of adults when CoAction has had two vacant residential houses in Castletownbere for over a year now. The children are familiar with the centre and the move to the new building will be traumatic for them. I have communicated with CoAction about this negative move. We need the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Rabbitte, to work with our public representatives and the parents to get CoAction to reverse this decision.
The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is aware of this matter and we will engage with CoAction. What is the purpose of this? Does the Deputy know the reason?
I have long been raising my concerns regarding staff retention and recruitment issues and the continuous scaling back of essential services in Letterkenny University Hospital. I raised this concern in February and this week we are seeing yet another resignation of a consultant in Letterkenny due, in his words, to "impossible working conditions". He is a consultant urologist who is known for his excellent quality of care. He has resigned from his post due to a lack of resources, reactive policies and impractical and onerous on-call demands. I cannot imagine any other urologist will take up this post if these are the conditions they are forced to work under.
How long does this have to go on? How many resignations will it take before this Government intervenes? Is the intention to run down the hospital altogether? The people of Donegal are suffering at the hands of this Government's continuous inaction on these issues, yet the Minister visited the hospital last week when this resignation occurred. What exactly will the Government do to ensure Letterkenny University Hospital is adequately staffed and resourced?
As the Deputy said, I visited the hospital and met the clinical and administrative leaders in the past few weeks and these issues were discussed. There is a new consultant contract coming into place. I believe that will help. We are also looking at whether there are additional supports that Letterkenny needs because of its location. It is so far from model 4 hospitals. It is something we are actively pursuing.
The funding is there. The posts are sanctioned but, as the Deputy rightly pointed out, the hospital has struggled to hire in permanent consultants across a range of specialties. It is something I have brought back to the HSE and the Department. We will continue to engage with the hospital.
I raise an important issue in relation to lending rules. As the Taoiseach will be aware, it is an exceptionally important issue given that thousands of people who are paying high rents are, unfortunately, unable to acquire a mortgage as a consequence of not being able to acquire a deposit. This is a major issue in high demand areas, such as Cork and Dublin, where first-time buyers are unable to attain some supports as a consequence of buying properties that are not new. They are locked out of supports. Will the Taoiseach engage again with the Central Bank to look at the deposit issue for long-term renters? This is a serious problem and a major concern to many young people in this country.
It would be remiss of me, a Cheann Comhairle, not to welcome my aunt and godfather in the Gallery.
I also welcome the Deputy's aunt and godfather.
In the first instance, in terms of the lending rules, there has been engagement over the past year and a half with the Central Bank in respect of this issue. It is an important issue because many people feel that people have been paying rent for a considerable length of time and have demonstrated an ability to pay on a regular basis amounts far higher than a mortgage would entail. The Central Bank recently took its decision in respect of macro-prudential rules. Notwithstanding all of that, I point out that this year we had the largest number of first-time buyers since 2008. That is largely due to the help-to-buy scheme and to the first home scheme, which will also provide for that. I take the Deputy's point. This is something on which we will continue to engage with the Central Bank.
When will the next round of the sports capital and equipment programme open to new applicants? The most recent round was extremely beneficial to the clubs that were allocated funding. It was useful in the context of coming out of Covid and the difficulties that clubs experienced over recent years. It is a fantastic programme, which has benefited many communities all over the country in the past 20 years or so. It is highly anticipated by clubs. Is there any information available on the review of the most recent programme and the opening for applications in respect of the next programme?
I thank Deputy Griffin and acknowledge his strong advocacy for sports clubs in County Kerry. We are finalising the review. We hope to open the next round early next year. We are finalising our engagements with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, who was supportive of the previous round when we had a record level of funding, as the Deputy will be aware, of over €160 million. We are anxious to continue to partner with clubs and grassroots on fulfilling their ambition and developing better facilities in communities. We will give further information on that in the coming weeks.
Will the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health make the HPV vaccine available to women over the age of 25? We all welcomed the decision that women under the age of 25 could get it free of charge from May. Will the Taoiseach ask the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, to look at this? I am asking only for those women for whom it has been deemed necessary that they get the vaccine by their GPs or clinicians, that is, those who have been clinically approved to have it and for whom it is recommended. There are too many women, particularly women on medical cards but also women who do not have medical cards and are on low incomes, who cannot afford the €600 to be able to get that vaccine. Would the Taoiseach and the Minister be able to do that? It would be very good if the Taoiseach could do that before he leaves office. If the vaccine could be made available, at a minimum, under the drugs payment scheme, that would in some way ease things.
I thank Deputy Conway-Walsh. Dr. Scally and I met this morning in the context of his report. One of the things we talked about is our absolute commitment to the goal of eradicating cervical cancer in this country, and the HPV vaccine is part of that. As the Deputy will be aware, we are rolling out the Laura Brennan HPV catch-up programme. The NIAC advice I have at present is to provide the vaccine to those aged 25 years and younger but I am more than happy to go back to NIAC and ask for updated advice for those over 25 years of age.
I raise with the Government, specifically the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the 70 days of protests we have seen - at this stage it is a revolution - on the streets of Iran. On 16 September, the morality police of the Islamic Republic killed 22-year-old Ms Mahsa Amini for deeming her not to be wearing an appropriate hijab while she visited Tehran from her native city in the Kurdistan region of Iran. So far, nearly 500 people have been killed, including more than 40 members of the media, and almost 17,000 people have been arrested. Is it true that Ireland is considering opening or will open an embassy in Tehran next year? This would be an appalling slap in the face to the ordinary citizens of Iran who are currently risking their lives on a daily basis against what is one of the most vile and barbaric regimes anywhere in the world. I urgently ask the Government to reconsider if that proposal is being thought about.
I thank Deputy Phelan. I know the Deputy feels strongly about this issue as he and I have spoken about a number of times. We are using every opportunity we can to raise our concerns directly with the Iranian Government and also in multilateral forums in relation to what is currently happening in Iran. There has been a violent crackdown on protesters and we have seen loss of life in the past 70 days, with more than 40 children killed during that crackdown in the context of the legitimate protests that have taken place. We have co-sponsored a convening of a special session of the Human Rights Council tomorrow in Geneva to look at human rights abuses and these issues in Iran.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. We agreed as a Government in 2021 to re-establish a diplomatic presence in Tehran.
We have been in the German Embassy since then with a chargé d'affaires. We are looking at the appropriateness of opening an embassy again next year. We had an embassy up to 2012. We are watching very closely political developments in Iran before finalising that decision.
I want to raise again the issue of the pay rates for community employment supervisors. These schemes provide vital infrastructure in communities not only in Kerry but throughout the country including maintaining graveyards, for example in Lixnaw, and working with GAA clubs in Crotta, Lixnaw and St. Senan's. Listowel municipal district has the highest disability rate in the county and the highest ageing population in the whole of the State. When there were crises such as Covid or the economic crash these community groups were there to provide essential services. The supervisors have had no pay increase in effect for 14 years. Their salaries have been eroded by tax increases and the cost of living. While the Government says it is not the employer the sponsors simply do not have the funds. I ask the Taoiseach to take steps because the only possible way to raise their pay is through increased Government funding. Will the Government do this to maintain these schemes?
I will speak to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform on this. The Government does not deal directly with the pay issues of organisations. Progress has been made on a number of fronts with regard to community employment schemes and supervisors. I will come back to the Deputy with a note from the Minister.
It is a case of déjà vuand another day another story in the Irish Examinerabout the elective hospital in Cork. It is being rolled out every couple of weeks. It is a bit self-indulgent of the many people who keep recycling the same garbage over and over again in the press. We all know the reasons we need the elective hospital. We know the importance of an elective hospital not only in Cork but also in Galway and Limerick. Can we get a specific timeline so that we can bring to an end all of the rumour, innuendo and suggestion? Can we get a timeline as to when the decision will be announced?
I am not responsible for what gets said in any newspaper by various individuals. There is a public expenditure code to which Ministers must adhere. There will be a memo before Government next week in respect of this. The Deputy knows my views on it.
I asked a parliamentary question in June about the number of dentists accepting medical cards. The answer I received was that just one dentist in Laois is accepting cards. This is one public dentist for a county with a population of 90,000 people. In Kildare eight dentists have left the scheme over the past year with just 28 submitting claims in May. I am inundated with people looking for dentists. No list is available. People are blue in the face from ringing all over the county and often outside of Kildare. When will the Government address the crisis that is public dentistry and act to prevent irreparable and painful damage that will be much more expensive to fix?
It is an issue. We are very aware that more and more dentists have pulled out of the scheme. We want to encourage them back. We have put in a considerable amount of additional money this year including higher fees. This money is in for next year also. The current approach is not working for too many people in the country. We need to hire and retain more dentists in the public and private systems. We have allocated significant funding for dental programmes for those aged from zero to seven years from next year. There is also money for catch-up programmes for children waiting for orthodontics. While these are important they are not enough. I have committed to the Department meeting the Irish Dental Association to speak about much more fundamental reform to make sure people who have medical cards get the access they quite rightly deserve and need. Far too often at the moment they do not have it.
The Taoiseach knows I am someone who has engaged with the Minister and Department with responsibility for children on trying to secure accommodation in Waterford and the south east for Ukrainian refugees. My question relates to abuses occurring in our immigration system. Recently I wrote to the Minister for Justice regarding the status of people leaving other European jurisdictions on travel documents and arriving at Dublin Airport with no travel documents looking for refugee status. The Minister responded that in the first nine months of this year 3,705 people arrived at Dublin Airport undocumented and that of a total of 5,662 persons presenting who were refused leave 4,969 persons indicated an intention to claim asylum. The Minister stated it is clear that a significant number hold status in another member state and are likely to have travelled here on conventional travel documents. We need to do more to shore up our borders and immigration policy.
There are issues which the Deputy has highlighted. We have already taken some action on people coming from some EU countries with documents that were dispensed with when they arrived here and then they applied for asylum. This is particularly with regard to European refugees. We disapplied some aspects of the European Convention in this regard because an abuse was identified and highlighted. We have to be vigilant that there is not this level of abuse of existing systems.
I raise the ongoing investigation into the violent death more than five years ago of 21-year-old Joe Deacy from St. Alban's in Hertfordshire, England while visiting his relatives in Mayo. I met Joe many times in London when playing football. He was a fantastic fellow. He was Mayo GAA to the core. The Garda opened a murder inquiry into Joe's death after post mortem results showed he suffered a blunt trauma to his head. He was found lying on the ground outside a house in Swinford on 12 August 2017 by a passing cyclist and died the following day in Beaumont Hospital. After a brief sitting of Dublin District Coroner's Court last Thursday the family consented to an application by the Garda inspector from Mayo to adjourn the inquest for an additional six months so that new lines of inquiry can be followed and several witnesses outside this jurisdiction can be interviewed. No one has been held accountable five years on. I ask that the State supports the Garda investigation team to ensure those who carried out this murder are brought justice.
It is a very sad and distressing case and our sympathies go to his family on the tragic loss of their son while visiting Ireland. It is a terrible and devastating loss to the family. We owe it to the Deacy family and in terms of their frustration at the perceived lack of progress we will provide every resource possible to An Garda Síochána. It is an operational matter for the Garda so we cannot intervene in this aspect. I hope the Garda will be successful in bringing the person or people culpable to justice.
In the recent budget our colleague the Minister, Deputy Norma Foley, secured a budget of €5 million for in-school counselling supports in primary schools. It is fantastic. I hope it will go some way towards beginning to deal with anxiety and the mental health issues that very much came to the fore in our country's young people during the Covid pandemic. A couple of weeks ago I visited Gaelscoil Mhíchíl Cíosóg in Ennis. It is a fabulous school run by Dónal Ó hAiniféin and Sinéad Ní Éigní the deputy principal. Enda Mac Gabhann is the post-holder in the school for mental health and well-being. This is probably unique in Ireland. The board of management is funding three hours therapeutic counselling services per week. This allows 37 students each week to go to a room where Aideen Flynn, a qualified psychotherapist and child play therapist, engages with them. This school should be used as a pilot school for this service. It is using very best practice. This is being funded by the school's own coffers. It believes it can achieve double what it is doing if it was funded. I ask that this be considered by the Government as a pilot school for this very positive measure.
I thank the Deputy for raising what is a very innovative approach by the Gaelscoil. The NEPS programme has been expanded and additional resources this year will increase the numbers by approximately 54 psychologists. This is my understanding. At a meeting of Fianna Fáil councillors at the weekend the issue of counselling in schools more generally was identified. Teachers have told me there is huge anxiety and well-being issues more generally after Covid in many of our schools and in society. I will speak to the Minister for Education on the specific issue. A pilot would invariably then mean a national scheme. We will have to identify and target.
The idea that schools would identify and prioritise therapeutic interventions is a good thing.
I refer to the savage attack on two gardaí in Ballyfermot the other night. Over recent years, more than 400 gardaí, between trainee and qualified, have quit the force. Why is this? Why are there 300 fewer gardaí in the force now compared to two years ago? The Garda Representative Association president, Brendan O'Connor, was on LMFM yesterday. He spoke about a lack of resources, support from his peers, and a lack of support from the Minister for Justice. Why is this the case? In my county of Meath, we have one garda per 650 people, while other counties have one garda per 332. Why is the number in Meath double that of other counties? Why is this not being addressed?
Urgent consideration must be given to a restructuring of the capitation grant for primary schools, with a greater payment per pupil where enrolment is low. There are the same basic costs in maintaining a classroom regardless of the number of pupils in the room. For decades, small schools have played a key role in providing education, particularly in rural areas, but in some instances in urban areas. I refer, for example, to Cavan No. 1 National School in Cavan town, which is under the patronage of the Church of Ireland. This issue is of great importance to schools under the patronage of smaller churches. Adequate supports must be provided for such schools to ensure they remain viable, are within a reasonably accessible distance, and are able to offer the same range of education services as other schools.
Farmers are being vilified and castigated day after day in this Chamber and, indeed, by the media and other commentators in relation to emissions. They are being told they have to reduce emissions by 25%. However, many farmers believe they are carbon neutral and are sequestering more carbon than they are emitting. Why is no measurement taking place to determine what is going on? How do you know what you can spend if you do not know what is in your bank account?
I remind Deputy Guirke that throughout my political career, I have consistently condemned the murder and assault of gardaí. I condemn unreservedly what happened last week. We are increasing Garda numbers. I do not know from where the Deputy gets his figures.
There are 14,318 Garda members across the country, an increase of almost 12% since 2015. We are committed to delivering 15,000 members, for which we have activated training and so on. We are very consistent in wanting to improve the numbers.
I take Deputy Brendan Smith's point on the need for supports for small and minority religion schools, in particular. We will do our utmost in terms of the cost-of-living crisis and the significant increase in energy costs. All recognised primary and post-primary schools in the free education scheme will benefit from additional capitation funding in 2022. There has been an increase of circa 40% in current standard and enhanced capitation rates. The additional grant will be paid at the rate of €75 per pupil at primary level and €113 at post-primary level. Enhanced rates will also be paid in respect of pupils with special educational needs. Arrangements are being made to issue the payments as soon as possible. Schools will be able to use this support to cover additional energy costs and other day-to-day operating costs that have increased. The Department is also ensuring that centrally negotiated rates are available to schools for electricity and bulk heating fuels. These are available through existing frameworks and sourced by the Office of Government Procurement, and run until 2024. I will engage with the Deputy in terms of additional resources for smaller schools.
I have to disagree with Deputy Danny Healy-Rae. Farmers are not being castigated in this House. I rarely hear farmers being-----
I wish to make two points. Farmers are rarely castigated in this House. We pay tribute to the farming community for the effort made to reduce emissions. Last week, I was in Devenish Farm in Dowth, which is carbon-neutral. The Deputy made a valid point in terms of a national-based survey of soils so that we have a basis from which we can assess the progress being made in becoming carbon-neutral. Many farms are not carbon-neutral at the moment. Very few farmers will say they are.
-----doing very good work. What I saw in Devenish Farm points to the direction and it is doable. The Deputy's point on the need for a national-based survey is valid. I am not disputing that.