Wednesday, 12 July 2023
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
Yesterday I raised the issue of the national children's hospital with the Taoiseach and the need to have it built and open for the children of Ireland. It has been delayed time and again and is now the most expensive hospital in the world. The Government has lost all control and credibility when it comes to the national children's hospital.
Today at the health committee we learned that, of the 3,000 rooms that should have been completed by now, only 27 are completed. Also at the committee, the board confirmed it has requested even more money from the HSE to finish the programme. This is above the €1.7 billion total programme costs. Will the Taoiseach tell us how much additional money the board has requested from Government? Will he clarify if that request is for outstanding claims by the developers or just to complete the work? Will he tell us, once and for all, when this fiasco will end? When will it open, how much will it cost and what is the additional money they are now looking for?
I think I answered that comprehensively yesterday. The allocation for the project is €1.433 billion. That allocation was made in 2018 and has not been increased since. It will cost more than that, as I said in the Dáil yesterday. We cannot say how much more it will cost at this stage because we are disputing the multiple claims for more money made by the contractor. It is clear it will be significantly in excess of €1.433 billion.
I speak on services provided by GPs, red-eye services and out-of-hours services, specifically in relation to SouthDoc. It is being reported the centre in Fermoy, County Cork, is to be reduced. I want the Minister, through the Taoiseach, to give a commitment that the centre in Fermoy will not be closed and, second, that there will be active GP cover on a red-eye basis from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. for the centre. The Minister will be familiar with Kanturk but I ask specifically about Fermoy. We do not want to see Fermoy closed.
As it happens, the issue of Kanturk was raised by Deputy Michael Moynihan with me in recent days and I was able to respond to him in writing last night that there are no plans to close the centre in Kanturk, and I will-----
When it comes to Fermoy, I will revert to the Deputy. I make the point that the HSE is not responsible for running these centres. This is an obligation on GPs to fulfil their out-of-hours obligations. SouthDoc is a private company run by the GPs but we will-----
The Taoiseach's comments on homelessness yesterday were shameful. They were beneath him and his office. In Dublin alone, the number of homeless families increased by 33% last year. I was at a Society of St. Vincent de Paul briefing earlier and there has been a 65% increase in homelessness for children in the past year alone. For the Taoiseach to home in on what he homed in on yesterday in the broader context of the homelessness crisis does not make sense. Because he is apparently outraged about it being referenced this morning, I will quote him so he does not say I am misrepresenting what he said. He is quoted as saying there are "lots of people in emergency accommodation [and] have refused multiple offers of social housing." He is homing in on that, even though there is a whole other big picture in relation to homelessness. As the Taoiseach, he cannot say things like that and then feign outrage when people hear exactly the same thing. Will the Taoiseach please reconsider his comments from yesterday?
I am happy to rephrase if it is helpful. If I said "plenty" or "lots of", I am happy to use the term “some”. I was specifically asked about cases of people in emergency accommodation for several years. I know some of those cases because I am trying to help those people. In some cases, people have been offered accommodation and have turned it down. There are people on the social housing list who have been offered accommodation and have turned it down. Sometimes they do it for very good reasons, and I acknowledge that, but to try to twist that and make out that somehow I am blaming people for the housing crisis is just fake. It is populism and misrepresentation and is beneath the Deputy.
The Taoiseach said it twice yesterday. He said it twice deliberately to get the headlines he got. He said it here and at a press conference. That is the truth of it.
It is a year since the Government received the report into defects in apartments, which revealed the shockingly widespread nature of serious defects, mostly fire defects, in the majority of apartments and duplexes constructed between 1991 and 2013 as a consequence of the regime of self-certification. At the start of this year, thankfully, the Government said we were going to have a 100% redress scheme with retrospection. However, there has not been any action. It has not done anything to help these people. In particular, there have been no moves on emergency funding.
The other day in Park West, there was almost a very serious fire. We know there are defects there. That building was highlighted in "Prime Time". When someone threw a cigarette butt out of a balcony, it blew back in and landed on artificial grass, which went on fire. We need emergency action now. The 100,000 families simply cannot wait.
This is something we are working on, both in terms of funding in the short term for emergency works that need to be done in relation to fire safety and a wider scheme, which will require legislation and which we will put in place to help people who need defects in their apartments repaired. That will be done with retrospection.
Ireland has reached full employment according to the Central Statistics Office, CSO, but with only one in three people with a disability employed, we have the lowest employment rate in Europe according to the European Disability Forum.
The Oireachtas and the Ceann Comhairle are leading the way by example to try to address this with the Oireachtas work learning, OWL, training programme in the Houses. One reasons for the low rate of employment among people with disabilities is the additional cost for employers associated with employing them. For example, I know one young constituent who has been refused two work placements due to insurance costs faced by the employer. The Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands has recommended that the wage subsidy scheme payments for an employer to employ a person with a disability be increased to 70% of the minimum wage in order to help defray these costs. Will the Taoiseach support this recommendation?
The specific matter the Deputy raised is under consideration. We are also considering potential grant schemes for employers and retailers to ensure that their premises are more readily accessible for those with disabilities, not only to visit, shop or do business but, crucially, also to work there. There is quite a bit happening. The recommendation is under consideration.
I have been supplied with a lovely picture of the Taoiseach, the Ministers, Deputies Eamon Ryan, Foley and Coveney, and, I think, the CEO of Irish Water standing at Ardnacrusha. It is lovely and picturesque.
I will if I get the right answer. It could used as a dartboard too, you know. I refer to the midlands region water supply and a project to pump 320 million gallons of water a day to Dublin before fixing the pipes here. The children’s hospital is already a disaster. It is a hole in the ground, and a runaway train as regards costs. Last year, Ardnacrusha did not have enough water to produce electricity for the months of August and September. Did anyone in government think to ask the CEO of Irish Water whether what is proposed will have an impact? If we take that much water out of Lough Derg, there will not be enough to allow the ESB to generate power for days or maybe months. This will have a huge impact; not to mention the impact of putting in place a pipeline to Dublin. It is a mad, daft and silly project. Will the Government derail it before it destroys Ardnacrusha? The only purpose of the project is to put water into leaky pipes in Dublin? Fix the pipes. Leave us alone in Tipperary. Stop this madness.
I am raising a specific Government policy, namely, the policy relating to protecting our waters within the six-nautical-mile zone for small fishermen and marine biodiversity. A fantastic policy was introduced in 2018. It was to become operational in 2019. Four years later, there is no sign of it. I know the whole history and the court cases involved. I have read the details relating to them. Four months after the final judgement, where is the policy? When will it become operational?
I know the Deputy knows the history of it well. There is a very strong Government commitment to protecting the zero-to-six-mile zone for inshore fishers in particular. A decision was taken and a policy was implemented by the previous Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, who had a very strong commitment to this. Unfortunately -----
----- and that had to be revisited. The court handed down its decision four months ago. We are considering it now. I plan to bring clarity as to how we move forward. As outlined on numerous occasions, it is my objective-----
----- to continue to protect that zero-to-six mile zone. I hope in the next few weeks to be able to bring clarity on how we go forward. If we do it, there will be a need to do the process all over again.
I have a question for the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health. I have just left a meeting across the road in Buswells Hotel with representatives of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO. Many Deputies have been over there meeting with them this afternoon. The INMO is suggesting legislation to underpin and secure staffing in hospitals. I said that sounds good but legislation takes a long time. It is cumbersome and involves red tape. Surely there are shorter term ways by which we can do this - perhaps even through the budget.
It was devastating during the Covid period to see so many doctors and nurses photographed on beaches in Melbourne. There must be ancillary ways, through dealing with the cost of living or providing some allowances, that we can make it more attractive for these nursing and medicine graduates to stay here in Ireland. Legislation might be positive but it takes a long time. I want to make a pitch on this, the second-last sitting day before we head into the budgetary cycle in the autumn, that we do something in the budget that might incentivise nurses and doctors to stay here in Ireland when they graduate. This has to be much more carrot and far less stick. Surely we can do something to make sure they stay here. Inroads are being made. We can see that. The Minister is doing a lot of good work, but we need to address matter in the context of the people involved.
A lot of progress has been made. We have worked closely with the INMO. This year we sanctioned over 870 staff to fulfil safe staffing in every hospital in the country. It has been suggested we legislate for those issues. I have taken advice from Irish and international experts on safe staffing and Ireland is now seen as one of the leading countries in the world on safe staffing. The advice I have is that we are not at a point where legislation would help because it is such a new process and we are still learning and evolving. We are in ongoing discussions with the INMO on this. As Bernard Gloster and I said at its conference earlier this year, it is not something we would rule out.
Some people claim that all our student nurses are leaving the country. That is an entirely false claim. I am not suggesting the Deputy is saying this but it is something one hears. Of course some graduates leave and go to Australia, Canada or wherever, as they should. I left here after a few years and I came home. However, the vast majority of graduates are taking jobs in the HSE. Ireland is not only blessed with one of the best, most professional, highly skilled and educated nursing workforces anywhere in the world now, but we now have the highest number of nurses per capitain the EU. We are going to keep working with the INMO to keep investing in the profession.
There are huge funding deficits in our disability services, especially in the voluntary sector, not just in Mayo but across the country as well. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is doing good work to bridge the gap in this year’s budget. Earlier this week, I spoke to the board of management of Western Care Association. The board outlined the association's ongoing challenges in the context of supporting those with disabilities. It is currently operating a deficit of over €8.8 million. That includes €3.1 million to maintain its existing level of service delivery, €2 million for additional capital investment in new vehicles, facilities and IT and €3.1 million for additional new business cases and funding for a workforce plan to mitigate high risk. That is not including the €2.7 million for HIQA registration for residential services at 42 locations. Without organisations such as Western Care Association, other voluntary disability services, carers and families of those with all levels of disability will be lost. Will the Government prioritise funding for the delivery of the disability capacity review? Will it seek pay parity for those working in section 39 organisations?
I thank the Deputy for raising issues relating to Western Care Association. The HSE, in conjunction with the board, has in recent months commissioned a service-improvement programme. It will address all the HIQA recommendations which have been accepted and, indeed, welcomed. The Government is committed to providing services for people with disabilities which will empower them to live their lives, provide greater independence in accessing the services they choose and enhance their ability to tailor the supports required to meet their needs and plan their lives. Western Care Association provides services to over 700 children, young people and adults with learning disabilities in the catchment area of County Mayo. It receives funding from the HSE under section 39 of the Health Act. The organisation's service agreement is with the HSE, which has operational responsibility for oversight and delivery of services in accordance with that agreement.
On Friday, a man named Michael, who is 82 years of age, called to my office. He was in huge distress because he had received an electricity bill for €939. That is a staggering amount, and completely unaffordable. Michael lives alone in a one-bedroom flat and is absolutely terrified to put on the heat or the electricity. He told me he has not put the heat on in months because he is so worried. I contacted the provider on Michael’s behalf. Its only suggestion was that he would pay in instalments. For a man of 82 years of age, that is completely unrealistic. He is already terrified of putting on heat or electricity and he sits alone at home with the lights off and no heating on. What am I meant to say to Michael? What is Michael supposed to do now?
I am very sorry to hear that that gentleman received such a big bill. There are a number of options. One is the one the Deputy mentioned, which is to pay the bill over a period by instalments. Another option is to contact the community welfare officer, who may be able to make an exceptional needs payment in that scenario.
I raise the issue of the lack of rural taxis. Every weekend, especially during the summer months, throughout west Cork, in towns such as Bandon, Clonakilty, Skibbereen, Bantry, Kinsale, etc., young people are out, have had a great night, have been to the restaurant, to the pub, and have been socialising. When it comes to home time, however, they are in limbo. They are stuck and they have nowhere to go because there is a complete lack of taxi services. This has been an ongoing issue for quite a while. If we do not rectify it, it will affect not just young people's ability to socialise and have a good time but also the pub trade, restaurants, etc., so we need to step in now and intervene. The Taoiseach's former party colleague and the former Minister of State, Jim Daly, who is from my constituency, had the excellent idea of ruxi, as he called it, a rural tax service whereby private individuals like Uber would be able to offer taxi services. Can we revisit that and finally sort out the issue of the lack of taxis in rural Ireland?
We are experiencing a lack of taxis not just in rural areas but in urban areas too, particularly at evening time. The matter is raised a lot. I am sure there is more we can do to encourage more people to get into the industry and to take up the business of becoming taxi drivers. I do not remember the exact detail of proposal of the former Minister, Mr. Daly, but I will look at it again and see if it may still have merit.
Galway County Council, on my request, recently carried out a traffic speed survey of cars entering a 60 km/h zone in Craughwell village, County Galway. They measured the speed of 45,000 vehicles over a week. Some 84% of those vehicles exceeded the speed limit. The average speed recorded was 88 km/h, with one car travelling at 159 km/h. Craughwell is not alone in experiencing an extraordinary pandemic, one might call it, of speed and carelessness on the part of motorists. The number of pedestrians dying in incidents on Irish roads doubled last year; we lost 155 people. So far this year we have lost 92. I ask the Taoiseach to engage directly with the Garda, the Road Safety Authority and the Minister for Transport to ensure we have far greater enforcement of our speed limits, that we work collectively and actively with local authorities in putting in place traffic-calming measures and that Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, rather than obstructing the development of traffic-calming measures, actively supports them.
I thank the Deputy for raising the really important issue of road safety. We need to remember that the roads belong to all of us, not just motorists but also cyclists and pedestrians. It is worrying to see the number of injuries and fatalities happening on our roads. I will certainly speak to the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and the Garda Commissioner about that.
Members of the Not Our Fault - 100% Redress campaign are yet again outside this building calling on the Government to take action on the issue of defects. As the Taoiseach will know, it was more than two years ago that the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, announced the establishment of the working group on Celtic tiger-era building defects. It has been a year since that group's report was published and six months since the Minister told these homeowners, many with very serious fire safety and structural defects, that funding was allocated for this year for emergency fire safety and remediation works and that the legislation would be published this year. Will the Taoiseach tell us and those affected homeowners how much money was allocated for the emergency interim fire safety works? Will he tell us when in 2023 they will be able to apply for it? Does he know when the legislation underpinning the redress scheme will be published?
My understanding is that money has been allocated this year for emergency works where fire safety is an issue. I will have to double-check with the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, the amount and how it can be drawn down. Realistically, I expect that it will be next year before we will have legislation on the scheme, but if we can do that sooner, we certainly will. This is an issue the Government is seized of and concerned about. In my constituency, unfortunately, a very large number of people are affected by buildings with apartment defects. I have disclosed my interest as somebody who owns an apartment with a building defect. It is certainly something we are working on and we want to help. People are, through no fault of their own, living in dangerous buildings and then have apartments, duplexes and houses they cannot then sell on. They are therefore stuck, and we want to help.
I want to raise the issue of Irish Water. First, when will we have a referendum on its ownership? Second, the transfer of water services staff from county councils to Irish Water is proving very unpopular, and I believe the level of services that will be given will disimprove significantly. As Oireachtas Members, we have a system to make representations to Irish Water, and this is working extremely poorly. From overbilling to leak allowances to incorrect banding rates being applied to accounts, when we contact Irish Water its customer service is increasingly non-existent. I have two cases at the moment in which discussions were ongoing with Irish Water to correct billing mistakes for two separate households, and in the middle of the negotiations, Irish Water wrote to those constituents threatening legal action if their accounts were not settled. Irish Water has to improve its customer service. The level of service we are getting from it is not good enough as regards representations.
The decision on the timing of the referendum is one for Cabinet. The issues the Deputy raises in respect of Irish Water would cause us concern. We will take up those matters directly with Irish Water. We want it to provide a service that is efficient and timely for the public. If Deputy Cahill has specific instances, he might bring them to my attention and I will take them up directly with Irish Water.
Yesterday, during Leaders' Questions, I put to the Taoiseach, as I have done before, data obtained from replies to parliamentary questions to demonstrate that the three successive Governments of which he was a part from 2016 to 2020 unfairly distributed public capital spending. Projects in Ministers' constituencies proceed while elsewhere they are stuck in the hell of public procurement. In his response to me yesterday regarding the south east, the Taoiseach name-checked some projects and intimated that I was wrong. To what percentage of the €12 billion in capital spending voted last year are the people of the south east entitled? What percentage, even a ballpark figure, does the Taoiseach think they probably got? The data I have show systemic long-term per capitaunderfunding in many areas, including acute healthcare, certainly higher education and almost every discretionary spending you care to analyse. As opposed to offering subjective anecdotes about equitable regional spending, I invite the Taoiseach to prove me wrong with verifiable data on this subject matter.
No part of the country is entitled to any particular amount of money. It depends on the projects and other factors. I will certainly look into the data. I do remember looking at some similar data in the past, but those data did not include projects of under €20 million or the national broadband plan, and it is not right to exclude those things because often it is the projects under €20 million that really add up: the schools, the sports capital and so on. The same thing applies to the national broadband plan. The Deputy might have new data, however, and I will certainly look at them.
In May 2019, the people of Limerick voted on the issue of a democratically elected mayor. Four years later we have no sign of legislation, despite being promised on a number of occasions that we would see it. That election was supposed to take place in July 2021. Obviously, I understand that Covid delayed that, but four years later we do not see even the legislation or what will be done. The Bill was included in the priority legislation for drafting and publication document in autumn 2022, but like other dates, that has been missed. When I raised the issue in September, the Green Party leader told me that "it is important we get that choice to the Limerick people quickly and use that as an example that can inspire other cities". Unfortunately, again, we have not seen anything in that regard. When will we see the legislation? Obviously, we will not see it before the summer recess. We were promised we would. The Taoiseach himself told me over a year ago that he thought there was a problem with interdepartmental arguments going on. Is that still the case? When will we see the legislation and, more importantly, when will the people of Limerick vote?
A memo for Government and the legislation is going for the Cabinet's consideration this week. It will have to consider both. The timing of the election is entirely a decision for the Cabinet.
We are honouring our commitment to the people of Limerick. A plebiscite was held. The legislation and the amendment has gone to Cabinet this week.
As we approach the summer recess, I wish to raise with the Taoiseach an issue concerning a former distinguished Member of this House, Mr. Alan Shatter. The Taoiseach will be aware of decisions of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal that stated categorically that Mr. Shatter was wronged and grievously so and was poorly treated in the context of his demise as a Minister and a Member of this House. This issue should be redressed and resolved. The discredited Guerin report is still an official record of the House. In the context of current matters, would the Taoiseach like to comment on how this redress might be put right?
In May 2014, a report of the Government-established non-statutory inquiry – the Guerin report – was published and was critical of Mr. Shatter’s conduct as Minister for Justice and Equality. The Government acknowledges that Alan Shatter's conduct as Minister was subsequently vindicated by the O’Higgins commission in its report, which was published in May 2016. Moreover, in legal proceedings that culminated in a decision of the Supreme Court in February 2019, it was found that Mr. Shatter had not been afforded fair procedures in the course of the inquiry. Certainly, in my view, Mr. Shatter was not fairly treated by an organ of the State. I want to acknowledge that in the Chamber today.
Teo is 13 years of age. He is on the severe end of the autism spectrum and is in residential care. If he does not get a school place this September, it will be his third year out of school, which is shameful. He is being told there are no school places with the supports and resources that are necessary for him available and that the only option for him is home tuition. His parents want him in school and Teo himself wants to be in school, but he is being told there is no place for him. This is completely unacceptable. If he does not get a school place, it will impact this young man for a very long time. I have written to the Minister of State about this but have still not heard back. Something has to be done. There are many other Teos out there. This is not acceptable. His parents are distraught and I ask for intervention.
I thank the Deputy for his question. I am not sure when he wrote to me, but I will check with my office. It would be unacceptable if Teo did not have an appropriate placement in September. I am not sure if it is a special school or special class.
I wish to raise with the Taoiseach the true reality of homelessness in this country. The Government’s most recent homeless figures are a smokescreen, as they are not the reality. The official figures do not include rough sleepers, couch surfers and homeless people in hospitals, prisons or domestic violence refuges. People are asking why the Government would just forget about and leave out so many people. The Government only collects data on those who access emergency accommodation. I call on the Taoiseach to publish the true figure for the number of families and individuals who make contact with local authorities on the basis that they consider themselves to be homeless and the outcomes in each case.
This morning, I spoke to nurses about their pre-budget submission. Not only were safe staffing levels and the need for legislation raised as being necessary, but they told me of nurses being forced to live hours away from their places of work, being exhausted going home at night, barely existing while paying enormous rents, never having a hope of owning their own homes, and more and more emigrating to Australia. What is the Taoiseach’s answer to these nurses?
Regarding the number of people who are in emergency accommodation, we do collect numbers on how many are in domestic violence refuges and so on. Those numbers are available. When it comes-----
I will stand corrected if we do not, but we certainly know the number of places available in the refuges. I do not know how we could collect numbers on how many people are couch surfing, for example, but it is the case-----
-----that the emergency accommodation figures are only people who are in State-provided emergency accommodation.
On nursing, what can we do? As the Deputy knows, we are increasing the number of nurses employed in the health service all the time. I think we have about 6,000 or 7,000 more nurses and midwives working in our public health service than we had three years ago when this Government came to office. We are improving pay levels, having an agreement on pay with nurses. I imagine we will have another one, which will result in further pay increases in the period ahead. Despite the fact that there are many parts of the health service where we do not have enough nurses, if we look at it overall, the number of practising nurses that we have per head in Ireland is among the highest in the western world.