Tuesday, 30 May 2023
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
Tuesday's business shall be: - Motion reReferral to Joint Committee of proposed approval by Dáil Éireann of terms of the Agreement Establishing the EU-LAC International Foundation (without debate)
- Motion reTwenty-Fifth Report of the Standing Committee of Selection and Appointment of Committee Cathaoirligh (without debate)
- Court Proceedings (Delays) Bill 2023 (Second Stage, resumed) (if not previously concluded, to stand adjourned at either 5.30 p.m. or after 1 hr and 40 mins, whichever is the later) Private members' business shall be the Motion re Respite Care Services, selected by Sinn Féin.
Wednesday's business shall be: - Statements on the current state of play regarding the Nature Restoration Law and Irish Agriculture (not to exceed 145 mins)
- Criminal Justice (Engagement of Children in Criminal Activity) Bill 2023 (Second Stage) (if not previously concluded, to be interrupted and stand adjourned at either 6 p.m. or after 1 hr and 31 minutes, whichever is the later)
- Veterinary Medicinal Products, Medicated Feed and Fertilisers Regulation Bill 2023 (Report and Final Stages) (to commence no earlier than 6 p.m. and if not previously concluded, to stand adjourned after two hours) Private members' business shall be the Motion reHome Ownership, selected by the Social Democrats.
Thursday's business shall be the resumed Second Stage (if not previously concluded) of the Criminal Justice (Engagement of Children in Criminal Activity) Bill 2023 (if not previously concluded, to stand adjourned at 5 p.m.).
Thursday evening business shall be the Motion reReport entitled “Lessons from the Architects of the Good Friday Agreement”.
Proposed arrangements for this week's business
In relation to Tuesday's business, it is proposed that: 1. the ordinary routine of business as contained in Schedule 3 to Standing Orders shall be modified to the extent that private members’ business shall be taken on the adjournment of proceedings on Government business, or where that business concludes within the time allotted by arrangement, on the conclusion thereof, with consequential effect on the commencement time for the items following private members’ business, namely, oral Parliamentary Questions to the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and topical issues, and on the adjournment time of the Dáil;
2. the Motion reReferral to Joint Committee of proposed approval by Dáil Éireann of terms of the Agreement Establishing the EU-LAC International Foundation shall be taken without debate;
3. the Motion reTwenty-Fifth Report of the Standing Committee of Selection and Appointment of Committee Cathaoirligh shall be taken without debate; and
4. the resumed proceedings on Second Stage of the Court Proceedings (Delays) Bill 2023 shall, if not previously concluded, be interrupted and stand adjourned at either 5.30 p.m. or after 1 hour and 40 minutes, whichever is the later, and shall not be resumed on Tuesday. In relation to Wednesday's business, it is proposed that: 1. the ordinary routine of business as contained in Schedule 3 to Standing Orders shall be modified to the following extent:(i) parliamentary questions to the Taoiseach pursuant to Standing Order 46(1) shall not be taken;2. the Statements on the current state of play regarding the Nature Restoration Law and Irish Agriculture shall not exceed 145 minutes, with arrangements in accordance with those agreed by Order of the Dáil of 30thJuly, 2020, for 135 minutes, following which a Minister or Minister of State shall be called upon to make a statement in reply which shall not exceed 10 minutes, and members may share time;
(ii) the sitting shall be suspended pursuant to Standing Order 25(1) at the time when parliamentary questions to the Taoiseach would normally be taken, with consequential effect on the commencement time for Government business; and
(iii) the weekly division time may be taken earlier than 8.45 p.m., and shall in any event be taken on the adjournment of proceedings on the Veterinary Medicinal Products, Medicated Feed and Fertilisers Regulation Bill 2023, or where those proceedings conclude within two hours, on the conclusion thereof, with consequential effect on the time for the adjournment of the Dáil;
3. the proceedings on Second Stage of the Criminal Justice (Engagement of Children in Criminal Activity) Bill 2023 shall, if not previously concluded, be interrupted and stand adjourned either at 6 p.m. or after 1 hour and 31 minutes, whichever is the later, and shall not be resumed on Wednesday; and
4. the proceedings on Report and Final Stages of the Veterinary Medicinal Products, Medicated Feed and Fertilisers Regulation Bill 2023 shall commence no earlier than 6 p.m. and shall, if not previously concluded, be interrupted and stand adjourned after two hours, and shall not be resumed on Wednesday. In relation to Thursday’s business: 1. the following arrangements shall apply in relation to Thursday:(i) the ordinary routine of business as contained in Schedule 3 to Standing Orders is modified to the extent that topical issues shall be taken no later than 5 p.m., with consequential effect on the commencement time for the Motion reCommittee Report entitled "Lessons from the Architects of the Good Friday Agreement" and on the time for the adjournment of the Dáil: Provided that in the event Second Stage of the Criminal Justice (Engagement of Children in Criminal Activity) Bill 2023 concludes on Wednesday, topical issues will be taken immediately following the SOS; and2. the proceedings on Second Stage of the Criminal Justice (Engagement of Children in Criminal Activity) Bill 2023 shall, if not previously concluded, be interrupted and stand adjourned at 5 p.m., and shall not be resumed on Thursday.
(ii) the Dáil on its rising shall adjourn until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 13thJune 2023; and
The HSE has warned that the rising and unpredictable cost of the new national children's hospital will have a significant impact on its ability to deliver other capital projects across the health service. At least a third of the capital budget for this year alone will be spent on the new children's hospital, yet we still do not know what the full cost of that will be. This puts desperately needed health infrastructure - additional hospitals, community beds and services - in jeopardy.
It seems the Minister for Health either cannot or will not discuss the capital costs of the hospital with the Committee of Public Accounts. In light of that, could Dáil statements be scheduled urgently to discuss this matter? The lack of transparency and accountability in respect of such vast sums of public money is very alarming.
The front page of the Irish Independenttoday shows it is now evidently clear that for Irish farmers to meet reckless nitrate targets set by Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party, with the support of the Labour Party and the Social Democrats, over 200,000 cows must be culled in Ireland. The only people this is not clear to are those in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, who will, by supporting the Green Party, wipe out many dairy and suckler farmers throughout rural Ireland. Farmers look like they will be forced to cull their herds or be fined. As this will have devastating consequences for farmers throughout the country, the Rural Independent Group wants a lengthy debate in the Dáil this week to prove to Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil how the reduction of the agricultural nitrates limit from 250 kg of nitrogen per hectare to 220 kg of nitrogen per hectare will lead to the biggest wipe-out of Irish farmers in this country. Will the Taoiseach allow this urgent debate this week?
The fire at the apartment complex in Blanchardstown serves to underline the need for urgency in addressing building defects in apartments and duplexes. Thankfully, nobody was injured and the residents are very thankful for the work of Dublin Fire Brigade in this regard. However, we know from a Government-commissioned report that between 50% and 80% of all apartment and duplex blocks built between 1991 and 2013 have defects, mostly fire defects. The Government has had the report for over a year. We have a commitment to a 100% redress scheme but things are moving incredibly slowly. The latest is that we will have the heads of a Bill at the end of this year and, hopefully, a scheme in place by the autumn of next year, when in all likelihood we will be on the verge of a general election. This is not good enough. We cannot gamble with the lives of people who are living in apartments and duplexes. We need urgency on this and, in particular, we need emergency funding for work that needs to be done. We need a debate on this in the House.
We need a debate about the pay and conditions of retained firefighters. The Taoiseach will be aware that there was a breakdown in negotiations between the National Retained Firefighters Association and Government agencies earlier this month. We know that retained firefighters have very onerous conditions. They must be other call for 24 hours a day for a minimum 48 hours for 48 weeks of the year. The average wage for retained firefighters stands at only €13,000 approximately, and SIPTU, which represents retained firefighters, has pointed out that the Government has failed to address a worsening recruitment and retention crisis in the service. Therefore, starting next week, retained firefighters will commence industrial action. This is at a time when, with the really good, sunny weather, the National Parks and Wildlife Service has been warning of increased fire risks. Can we have a debate on the pay and conditions of retained firefighters, as these have to be addressed urgently?
The figures in the Farming Independentsupplement of the Irish Independentshowing that 200,000 cattle are to be culled by 2025, which is just in a year and a half, points to an incredible threat to the farming sector. It will be at a cost of about €600 million. A full 25% of the beef being imported to the European Union comes from Brazil. How is it environmentally friendly to fell large swaths of the Amazon to produce beef and for us to import that beef to substitute for Irish beef being culled in this State? There is a significant threat hanging over farmers in this country, and we must have a debate to crystallise exactly what the plan of the Government is.
The Deputies opposite have all raised important issues – four very important issues. I have no difficulty in having them debated. We have Government time and Opposition time in the House but the Government is using its time this week to enact important legislation. The Opposition chose its issues but it did not choose any of the issues just raised for debate this week. Therefore, if the Deputies feel-----
The Deputies are obviously free to use time next week, when they will have more Opposition time. They can use their Opposition time from this week, or we can try to schedule some debates through the Business Committee-----
Let me try this again with the Taoiseach. I have told him that the HSE is now warning about the increasing and unpredictable cost of the national children's hospital. It is of such a scale that the cost will eat up one third, or perhaps more, of the budget and put a question mark over other much-needed infrastructure. It seems that the Minister for Health has a figure. He will not share it, though. Furthermore, he will not go before the Committee of Public Accounts to discuss this matter. That is the wrong move and most unhelpful. Vast sums of money are being spent on a public project that we have been waiting for for more than a decade. Is it 12 years we are over schedule? We are still waiting and it seems the cost continues to mount. If the Taoiseach cannot agree to holding statements on this matter, perhaps the Minister will take to his feet and shed some light on it.
I thank the Deputy. We have all known for some time that the cost was going to go above €1.4 billion, which was the formal cost signed off on by the Government. Intensive negotiations are happening between the contractor and the development board. The sums of money involved are large. I do not have a figure. No one does, as there has been no resolution to many of the issues. The contractor undoubtedly has legitimate claims in some cases, and those claims should be respected. In other cases, the clear advice I have is that there are claims for very sizable amounts of money that the development board and the State flatly reject and do not believe we have to pay. No one is trying to be difficult.
-----figure. At the same time, we are not giving an estimated figure because we do not want to prejudice the negotiation. The contractors would like nothing more than the State to say we believe we will have to pay X amount of money, because doing so would prejudice the negotiations. We must leave the board in the strongest possible position to negotiate on behalf of the State.
Friday's homelessness figures marked yet another shameful milestone, with 12,259 people now recorded as homeless, including more than 4,000 children. This morning, stark testimony was given to the housing committee by representatives of Threshold, the Simon Communities and the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, which reminded Oireachtas Members that the 12,000 plus figure recorded by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage excluded the many people in hidden homelessness who face the insecurity of couch surfing and sleeping in the homes of friends and families on a temporary basis.
Particularly stark testimony was given by a public health nurse, Ms Jackie Austin, who told of the deeply unsuitable accommodation being used to house families, with babies and infants in hotel rooms that do not even have the space to fit a cot or crib. This is an unthinkable situation for any parent. The Labour Party's Housing (Homeless Families) Bill 2017 would ensure that children were prioritised-----
We will certainly consider any legislation that the Labour Party puts forward, but I would have to understand how that would work. We also have an issue of older people - senior citizens - becoming homeless. Would the Labour Party's Bill have the effect of putting them at the bottom of the list? That would be a problem. What we need is enough social housing for everyone.
I wish to ask about voluntary contributions in schools. A report published by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul today found that, of the 1,500 respondents to its survey, more than 90% said that they were going without because they would have to cover the voluntary contribution, which is only rarely voluntary. Some 671,000 people are at risk of poverty and one would imagine that many of the survey's respondents were already cutting their cloth very finely, perhaps even to the bone.
During austerity, the capitation grant, which covers the basis running costs of schools per pupil, was cut from €345 to €309. Will the Government prioritise an increase in the capitation grant and the introduction of free schoolbooks at second level and will it introduce a regulation to monitor and remove voluntary contributions from our schools? Very few schools acknowledge the fact that these are voluntary contributions. There is nothing voluntary in a parent being told that, if he or she is experiencing difficulties, he or she should go in and speak to the school.
To be very clear, section 64 of the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 explicitly prohibits the charging of admission and enrolment fees for admission or for continued enrolment in a school. Whatever may be said to parents, they do not have to pay them, and they are voluntary contributions, but I appreciate that many parents do not feel that way and feel under pressure to pay them.
We have increased the capitation grant by 7.5%. I have no doubt the Minister, Deputy Foley, will seek a further increase for next year, but that this of course a matter for the budget. We are bringing in free school books in primary schools from September. I hope that will help parents with the cost of going to school, as well as an increase in the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance paid at the higher rate again this summer.
Tomorrow morning, Marie O'Shea will present at the health committee on her review of the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018. I have two asks of the Government parties here today. I know people are concerned about the Bill that I have before the House, that will be voted on tomorrow night. I understand there are concerns left, right and centre about this issue, but I ask the Government parties to listen to that meeting with Marie O'Shea in the morning and to listen first hand to the very much evidence-based report that she will give and the recommendations that she will make. She also makes the point that this will require courage and leadership from the Government parties.
My second ask is to the leadership of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to give their Deputies a free vote, as they did when the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act was introduced and voted on in 2018. To be consistent with the rhetoric, which was that everybody has different views and ethos on this-----
I have read the report, as has everyone at Cabinet, because we approved its publication, and we await the advice of the Oireachtas joint committee once it has done its report. Certainly, as far as my party is concerned on this matter, members have a free vote, but just like Deputy Bríd Smith, I would prefer to wait until the Oireachtas joint committee makes its report, and that is why I will be voting for the timed amendment.
When the Taoiseach was Minister for Health he said that short of an asteroid hitting the planet, the national children's hospital would be built for €700 million by 2020. It is currently double the cost; it could end up at €2 billion and it will not have its doors open until 2025.
The national children's hospital is just one of a long list of public capital projects that are way over budget. It seems that we if we put the word "national" in front of a capital project, we immediately increase the costs and lengthen the time. The same is true for the national broadband plan, NBP, and the national maternity hospital.
The overspend on the children's hospital is now swallowing up vast capital expenditure that should be going into other projects, such as primary care centres, critical care beds in Cork, a major trauma centre in Cork, a radiation oncology unit in Limerick, the restoration of Wexford Hospital and the long-awaited national maternity hospital. It is really important that we ensure that those projects are not deleted as a result of a massive overspend that is now affecting the national children's hospital.
I can give Deputy Tóibín the absolute assurance that they will not be deleted or delayed. The national children's hospital is costing much more than was projected, but it is also taking a lot longer than was projected, so the amount of money being spent each year is largely in profile and for that reason it will not impact other capital projects.
The national broadband plan is now running under budget, and is actually speeding up, so I am very confident that the national broadband plan will come in at a lot less than the €3 billion allocated and the delivery of it is really speeding up in the last couple of months. It is not always the case that any national project is late and over budget. The NBP is an example of the reverse.
The condition of roads in west Cork is in an appalling state. As we head into June, I have people from Castletownbere, Skibbereen, Clonakilty, Bandon and Schull telling me that they have had serious damage done to their cars due to shocking roads. Almost three years ago, Cork County Council carried out an independent report, by the All-Ireland Research Observatory, AIRO. It proved the shocking lack of funds being allocated for years to Cork County Council by successive Governments. The report states it would take 52 years and extra funding of €750 million to bring roads in County Cork up to the same rate of funding as other councils receive.
This report showed that out of 215 national approved rural regeneration funding projects, only three came to south-west Cork. The area also has the lowest number of schemes funded under the urban and village renewal and local improvement schemes. This independent report is clear evidence of a massive shortage of funding in County Cork while Fine Gael councillors in west Cork blame everyone except their own party. Will the Taoiseach meet with the mayor of Cork County Council and council officials immediately to discuss the AIRO report and start to put right the wrong that has been done to Cork County by successive Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil-led governments over decades on our road conditions?
There are a number of sources of finance for city and county councils when it comes to repairing roads. There are grants from the Department of Transport. Councils can use their own resources from commercial rates, for example, and the local property tax. The Minister for Transport is responsible for allocations by county. He acknowledges, notwithstanding a very big allocation for local and regional roads, that the cost of repairing roads has gone up. He is examining that at the moment.
Eating disorder support services have reported a huge increase in demand post pandemic. At the end of last year, Bodywhys, the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland, reported that over a 12-month period, there had been a 55% increase in those attending its services and a 125% increase in those attending family support services. With eating disorders, early intervention is key in preventing the person from reaching a stage of hospitalisation. These support services are often a lifeline for those who need them. Despite this, recent developments confirm that there is an absence of funding this year for the HSE National Clinical Programme for Eating Disorders, which reported 435 referrals and 227 assessments in 2022 alone. By doing this, people with eating disorders are being put in an incredibly dangerous position. People living with eating disorders need access to services to recover and to rebuild their lives. Will the Taoiseach intervene as a matter of urgency to reinstate funding for these vital services?
The Government remains firmly committed to enhancing specialist services for eating disorders, including improved access and shorter waiting lists. Over the last four years, more than €8 million has been made available for eating disorder posts. The national model of care aims to establish 16 teams in total. There are currently five teams in place and three more are being recruited. Recruitment continues, with 60% of whole-time equivalent positions filled. I say to anyone listening that funding is being provided this year. Funding has been provided for anybody who is in an inpatient or outpatient unit. Funding for Bodywhys has been provided. The current situation is that of the 96 staff members who need to be recruited, 60% are in place. When the rest of the staff are recruited, we will go back and recruit more. You cannot continue to fund posts when people cannot be recruited. We will continue. I reiterate, so that there is no doubt whatsoever, that money is available for any person with an eating disorder this year.
Last month, I attended the launch of a moving memoir, Everything, which has been written by my friend Kathleen Chada, who is an absolutely remarkable woman. As the Taoiseach is aware, the Department of Justice commissioned an independent study on familicide and domestic homicide reviews, and its report was brought to the Cabinet today. Those impacted await the publication of the report. Kathleen Chada and other members of Sentencing and Victim Equality, SAVE, submitted repeatedly to the study. It is a bit disappointing that it has taken so long for the report to be published, although I understand it is a huge piece of work and there is a lot of work to be done going forward. When will a timescale be available? What is happening going forward? It is important we provide that information. While it is good that it went to the Cabinet today, I am looking for more information and a timescale.
I thank the Deputy for raising this important and sensitive issue. As I read the report, families like the Chadas, the Hawes and others affected by such tragedies were in my mind. The report was approved by the Cabinet today. The Minister intends to publish it in the next couple of days. I do not know the exact date. There are many recommendations in the report. It needs thought and consideration. Some of these things are happening already, while we need to give further thought to others. My understanding is that there have already been meetings with families affected or they are being organised. It is important that families should have the draft report.
I welcome plans to ban the sale of vapes to under-18s. We know the impact of nicotine when it comes to developing brains. We know that children who vape are five times more likely to start smoking. The move is welcome from a health standpoint.
Honestly, however, it is the targeted advertising to young people that really concerns me, including the different colours and flavours. It is almost like these items are being marketed as products for children, like a chocolate bar, a soft drink or an accessory. Cracking down on advertising is a key focus of the proposed legislation. Will a focus on online advertising on social media be included as well?
I thank the Deputy for the question, which she has raised previously. The proposed legislation we approved today is to ban the sale of vapes to those aged under 18 and by those aged under 18. Equally, they will only be able to be sold in licensed stores. There cannot be pop-up shops or stands at festivals or events targeted at children. There will also be restrictions on advertising, particularly around schools, cinemas and other places.
I am not sure to what extent this will apply to online advertising, which of course young people, in particular, are exposed to all the time. We do have a World Wide Web, so I am not sure of the extent to which this proposed measure will apply to that context or the extent to which it can apply in this regard, given the international nature of the Internet. I will certainly ask the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, or the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to respond to Deputy Higgins on this subject later.
The people of Donegal are sick and tired of the neglect of Letterkenny University Hospital, LUH. The Minister for Health met with representatives of the County Donegal branch of Diabetes Ireland when he was last up in the county. He learned first-hand about the serious crisis in diabetes care. An adult is supposed to wait six months for an important appointment, but it is 24 months in County Donegal. Recently, not one but two consultant endocrinologists resigned from the hospital. Will the Minister personally intervene to deal with this latest crisis? Will he consider LUH, its absolute neglect and the second-class citizenship that people in County Donegal feel when it comes to going to our hospital?
I thank the Deputy for the question. I have two points to make in response. I have had more than one person from County Donegal say this to me recently, and I have a suspicion, which is nothing to do with the Deputy at all, that a bit of a whispering campaign is going on concerning LUH. I do not know where this is coming from.
I want to be absolutely clear to everybody in County Donegal that this Government is investing in and growing LUH. For some reason, people are putting it about that LUH is being downgraded. I want to be unequivocal in this regard, and the facts back this up. We are investing in and growing LUH and we are investing in hospital services and community services in County Donegal. I have personally opened several primary care centres in the county.
Turning to the second point the Deputy raised, for which I thank him, LUH has struggled to hire consultants in certain specialties. I met with the HSE's senior HR team just yesterday and we discussed LUH in particular. It has taken a targeted approach to recruitment in County Donegal.
Unfortunately, there are long delays in Cavan-Monaghan for children with additional needs or disabilities obtaining therapies such as occupational therapy, speech and language therapy and physiotherapy. We all know the importance of having early interventions to support a child with a specific health needs, but, unfortunately, this is not happening sufficiently. There are particular difficulties in getting clinicians to take up these posts in areas like counties Cavan and Monaghan. We need a robust international recruitment campaign for therapists. Equally, a shorter process must be undertaken in validating the qualifications of people who trained abroad. In the longer term, we must train more people in our own colleges and these professional positions must become attractive as careers. Recruitment and retention of such clinicians are essential to ensure that adequate services are provided for children with a disability, regardless of where they live.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. As part of the progressing disability services, PDS, roadmap process, I will be meeting with Mr. Bernard Gloster tomorrow and recruitment and retention will be addressed. I refer as well to increasing the attractiveness of recruitment into those various clinician posts, examining how we can put apprenticeship models in place and how we can attract people in from abroad and create incentives to attract people to come as well. We are looking at all these measures in the round and, hopefully, this will be part of the PDS roadmap that will be launched in the next number of days.
A report this week showed there are currently 20 times the number of short-term lets on Airbnb compared to long-term lets on Daft.ie in Galway.
At the same time, there are 500 people in emergency accommodation in Galway. Many more are living with family members as a result of being homeless. People of all ages, single and in families, who are facing eviction as a result of the lifting of the no fault eviction ban come to me every week. As I have told the Taoiseach previously, many young couples have told me they simply cannot start a family because they are in such precarious housing situations. What does he say to young couples who are trying to settle down and start families but have no chance of ever owning their own home or finding rental accommodation at a time there are many Airbnbs but few properties available to rent or buy on daft.ie?
We are introducing new legislation and regulations on short-term letting such as Airbnb to restrict it in the cities, in particular. The proposed legislation is currently being reviewed by the European Commission. It is something we want to introduce, in particular in city centres and urban areas where there are such shortages of places to rent. As I said earlier, in response to questions from others, it is encouraging to see how many first-time buyers there are every week - 400 people are buying their first home every week. It is an underestimate because it does not include couples but rather counts them as one person. We have not seen those kind of numbers since the Celtic Tiger period. The Government will continue its work to make homeownership a reality for many more people than is the case at the moment.
Now that the family law legislation is under review and is likely to necessitate amending legislation, is it intended to bring these matters before the House at the earliest possible date given the possibility of claims against the State if that is not done?
I do not have a date, but I am told the proposed legislation is on Committee Stage in the Seanad at the moment and will come back to the House after that. Certainly the intention is for it to come before the House before the summer recess.
During next year's local, European and general elections, the public will have the same interest in Fine Gael as they would have in contracting the bubonic plague. Why? That is because they will not trust it. When I and my colleagues in the Rural Independent Group continually raise the fact that it is looking at reducing the national herd, the Taoiseach denies that. I want to thank Ciaran Moran and the people in the Irish Independent and Farming Independent for their FOI request. A dossier was released containing proposals of which Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Greens were well aware. They have all been behind this. It proposes another massive cull of the national herd. I want the Taoiseach to say something to Irish farmers and people in rural Ireland. I have said continually, and I get no satisfaction from saying it, that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have lost rural Ireland. The Greens never had it. Fine Gael lost it because of the way it continually treats people in rural Ireland, in particular people in the farming sector.
I hope that Deputy is happy that it is I who will respond to this point. When he talks about people being part of a narrative, people on that side of the House have been part of a narrative for a long time. They have told farmers something that is not true, namely that the Government somehow wants to take cows off people and force a cull of the national herd. That is not the case. We have always been very clear about options, and supporting farmers in those options and supporting them financially to make the best decision for themselves. What was reported today in the Irish Independentis an options paper on modelling that was put forward by the Department. There is no final policy decision. This should not be a surprise to the House because we came together after targets were set for all of the different sectors. The sectoral target for a reduction in emissions for agriculture was set at 25%. We brought together all stakeholders in the beef and dairy sectors. We came up with a report that was published in full last autumn. It set out a number of options, one of which was a voluntary retirement exit scheme for those farmers who want to avail of it. What was reported today is one modular working out of the detail of what the options papers would look like. There has been no final decision in this area. I reassure the Deputy, unlike the narrative that has been delivered that farmers will be forced to take actions, that is not the case. Options will be open to them and they will be able to make their own decisions.
I want to raise with the Taoiseach the frequency and duration of outages in the Keel-Inch water mains network.
Householders and businesses had a terrible weekend last weekend. This occurs more and more often on the network. The asbestos cement, AC, pipe between the Ballyarkane reservoir and the R561 is badly in need of replacement, but there is no plan by Uisce Éireann to do it at present. There is a terrible network in the Farran-Boolteens area. It could be months before that is replaced. Greater urgency is needed from Irish Water, when it comes to cases such as this, which occur over and again. I ask for an intervention to ensure this happens to spare the householders the misery they are going through at present.
Last November, my party brought forward proposals on how we deal with the continuing recruitment and retention crisis in the retained fire service. Many retained fire fighters came here that evening to listen to the debate and they made it clear they could not go on. They told us the service was on its knees and on the brink of complete collapse. Six months later, nothing has been done to address those issues. What will the Taoiseach do to re-establish the talks that have collapsed? What will he do to ensure meaningful proposals are brought forward to ensure strike action, which is now planned, can be avoided? Will he speak to his colleague, the Minister of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, about improved pay for retained fire fighters?
Some 120 front-line healthcare workers with long Covid are on a special leave scheme that will stop in 31 days. Hundreds more front-line workers with long Covid, including healthcare workers who contracted Covid since 15 November 2021, are left without any specific supports. The Government has been considering designating long Covid as an occupational illness, but I want to know when the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, will make a decision on that designation. If long Covid is not designated as an occupational illness, what supports will be put in place for staff who are unable to work due to these debilitating symptoms?
I will ask the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, to answer the Deputy Naughten's question at the end.
With regard to Deputy Griffin's question, Uisce Éireann has statutory responsibility for all aspects of water services, planning delivery and operation. However, my offer made inquiries with Uisce Éireann on this issue today. I am informed there are two separate approved construction projects for this year. The section from Boolteens to Farran is designed and the plan is for the replacement of approximately 1.6 km of network. It will commence in July. The section from the Inch water treatment plant to the main road is under design and the plan is for the replacement of 2.2 km of network to commence once the first project is completed.
With regard to firefighters, I recognise the incredible work done by our firefighters, both retained and directly employed, putting themselves at risk to keep us safe. In particular, I will pay tribute to Dublin Fire Brigade for the work it did in getting a fire under control very quickly in my constituency, at Falcon's View in Blanchardstown. A report was done on the retained fire service, carried out by Coyne Research. The Government accepted the findings of the report. Negotiations took place under the chairmanship of Mr. David Begg. However, following proposals from the staff side, discussions on priority hire issues, remuneration and work-life balance were moved to third-party facilitation under Mr. Ultan Courtney. Progress was made during those discussions. However, it has not been possible to reach positive conclusions to that process that satisfy all parties. SIPTU has notified all local authorities of its intention to take industrial action from 6 June. I should point out that the State's offices, such as the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court are always available as an option for further intervention.
I thank Deputy Naughten for raising this issue. I know he has raised it on a number of occasions. I have written to my colleagues, the Ministers for Health and Enterprise, Trade and Employment, and I will meet with them. Ultimately, it will be a Government decision as to how we deal with this matter, because, as we know, it was a whole-of-government response to Covid. I will meet with them shortly. We will progress at whatever stage and whatever decisions are made will be brought to Cabinet.