Wednesday, 27 September 2023
Ceisteanna ar Pholasaí nó ar Reachtaíocht - Questions on Policy or Legislation
I join in commending members of An Garda Síochána, our Defence Forces, the Naval Service and the Army Ranger Wing on the successful operation off our coast yesterday. It demonstrates the need to invest in Naval Service capacity and in the wider Defence Forces. The truth is that our Naval Service cannot monitor our seas effectively and this is due to decades of under-investment. At present, only two Naval Service vessels can be put to sea at any one time due to staffing shortages and that, in turn, is because despite all of the commendations regularly made, the reality is personnel are not paid properly and their terms and conditions are, in many cases, appalling.
There are fewer Defence Forces personnel today than at any time in the history of the State and the situation worsens on the Taoiseach's watch. An Oireachtas committee heard yesterday that more members will leave the Defence Forces this year than will be recruited.
What is the plan? Where is the urgency? When will we see the resources, the recruitment and the retention necessary to keep the State, the country and our people safe?
I thank the Deputy. I want to join everyone in this House in thanking and commending the members of the joint task force, including An Garda Síochána, Revenue, the customs service and the Naval Service, which in co-operation with the Air Corps and the Army Ranger Wing successfully intercepted a major shipment of controlled drugs at sea yesterday in very challenging conditions. The operation resulted in the detention of a bulk cargo vessel originating from Latin America with a significant volume of illegal drugs on board, which would no doubt have been destined for the Irish and European markets. This will represent a serious blow to organised crime gangs and it shows that Ireland and its waters are guarded and protected. I also want to acknowledge partners internationally such as the Maritime Analysis Operations Centre - Narcotics, which is based in Lisbon, the UK National Crime Agency, the US Drug Enforcement Administration and the French customs service. We have record levels of investment in the Defence Forces. It is well over €1 billion a year. We have a huge investment commitment under way. When it comes to pay, I do not think it is all about pay. The Deputy can do the international benchmarking if she wishes. Pay for our Defence Forces compares very favourably with the UK or the US, even when an adjustment is made for the cost of living. There are many more issues at stake when it comes to the problem of recruitment in the Defence Forces than pay alone.
I want to join with others in commending the incredible bravery shown by the members of the joint task force in the interception of the ship at sea yesterday. It shows incredible co-ordination and heroism.
I want to raise a different policing matter with the Taoiseach today. The matter was raised this morning with the Minister, Deputy McEntee, by Deputies Bríd Smith and Carthy. I refer to the need for a public inquiry into the tragic death of Shane O'Farrell. On behalf of the Labour Party, Deputy Ó Ríordáin and I want to express again our condolences to Lucia O'Farrell and the O'Farrell family who tragically lost their son and brother Shane 12 years ago when he was struck by a car while cycling near Carrickmacross. This House voted for a public inquiry into the matter in November 2019 and the Seanad voted similarly in February 2019. We know there was a litany of State failings following Shane's untimely death. An inquiry would help to ensure other families would not be failed by the system in the way the O'Farrell family has been failed. As a first step the family are seeking a Dáil debate on this matter and I ask the Taoiseach to facilitate that.
There have been Dáil debates on this matter and there is no reason there cannot be such a debate again. The Deputy has the option of using her own time for this. Alternatively, the Business Committee can prioritise it for discussion in the Chamber. Of course I extend my sympathies again to the O'Farrell family. There have been quite a number of reviews into this case. There has been a court case and there have been independent reviews by a retired judge. They speak for themselves. I encourage people to read them because it is important that they are read. I do not honestly believe that another inquiry, public or otherwise, would come to a different conclusion.
I too want to commend the joint task force. I think it was an exemplary piece of work. Obviously, resources are a significant issue.
I want to raise the issue of school transport. When will the review be published? This comes up every year, but I do not believe I have seen a year worse than this one. There are special needs children without school transport services. We are seeing children who did not get their first or second choice schools finding a place in their third choice school but not having a transport system that can get them there. It costs €800 for a seat on a private bus. The Taoiseach has talked about the cost of living. Try doing that with a couple of kids. We can see the kind of pressure that is put on families. It is chaotic. We have cases of one sibling getting a bus ticket and another one not getting a ticket. Children are being told they can have a service but they have to walk 4.5 km to get there. It is chaotic. People are juggling work and other commitments and not managing to get their children to school. It is just outrageous what is going on.
I am afraid I do not have a date for the publication of the review. I will make inquiries with the Minister, Deputy Foley. I appreciate that this is a big issue around the country. I know from reports from our constituency offices that many children who are entitled to school transport have not got it this year. Some of this is down to driver shortages but we need to find solutions.
There is a terrible legacy of this State relying on charity to deliver care for the most vulnerable sections of our society, particularly those with disability. We have perpetuated a situation where 5,000 workers in 30 organisations have been forced to serve strike notice of three weeks on this date. This is an indefinite strike in the section 39 sector. I want to make a very simple argument. These workers took massive pay cuts during austerity. Other workers have had their pay restored, but these workers have not. Why are we treating them differently given that the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, said here a few months ago that on the one hand these are private organisations but on the other hand we largely fund them, so we cannot divorce ourselves from their ability to pay their staff? If we push the staff of the Irish Wheelchair Association, the National Learning Network, Enable Ireland, Depaul, Cobh hospital and the Rehab Group - the list goes on and on - out on strike, shame on us. We are boasting that we have never had as much money in the national purse as we have now. I ask the Taoiseach to intervene to prevent this strike from happening and to make sure the people who look after our most vulnerable get pay parity.
We very much value the work carried out by these organisations and the people who work in them. As I have said before, it is important to understand that they are not public sector employees. We do not determine what their salary is, what their pensions are, who gets hired or who does not get hired. They are outside of the public service. However, the Government is the main funder of all the services they provide. That is why we absolutely have a role to play in funding these organisations. An offer of a 5% pay increase is on the table which would kick in within a matter of weeks in November. Of that, 3% would be backdated which means that people would get a lump sum, perhaps in time for Christmas. There is a commitment to engage on a further increase if and when we have a public service pay deal. That is what was done in the past. The pay deal was done with the public servants and subsequent to that, a few months later, an agreement was made with the section 39 sector.
On behalf of my colleagues in the Regional Group, including Deputy Berry, who is a retired commandant, and on my own behalf, we would like to be associated with the very positive comments about the joint task force's security operation yesterday.
The Government has built up expectations that South East Technological University, SETU, will meet the south-east region's need for university education principally by adding capacity and new programmes to halt the region's longstanding brain drain. This brain drain is a significant obstacle to the economic development of the region. Given that the last three programmes for Government, in 2011, 2016 and 2020, specifically prioritised development of higher education in the south east, it is surprising that no new teaching building has commenced in Waterford this millennium. When he laid out his capital plans for SETU recently, the Minister, Deputy Harris, failed to mention the long-awaited public private partnership, PPP, project, which has been announced and reannounced periodically since 2008. Is the higher education PPP bundle 2 dead?
No, it certainly is not. SETU is already making a hugely positive impact in Waterford. Much to the contrary of some of the Deputy's own public commentary, the Waterford Crystal site will be purchased - that will go to the governing authority very shortly - and the PPP process is very much in hand.
The pig industry is facing a huge recruitment crisis. Recent research shows that almost 50% of pig farmers will exit the market if they cannot get workers. Some 48% of those same farmers have vacancies but they are not allowed to recruit outside the State. They cannot fill the vacancies at home and they are not allowed to recruit from outside the State. It is a desperate crisis for them. If the Department does not intervene to allow these farmers to get workers from abroad, this industry is going to go down the Swanee. These are real figures and real concerns across many areas of agriculture and other areas in the country as well. I am not saying it is only the pig farmers who are affected by this problem, but it is particularly acute among them. They have the vacancies but 48% of them cannot get employees because they are not allowed to recruit from abroad. I would like the Taoiseach to ask the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment to intervene to give them permits to bring people here in order to keep this valuable industry afloat.
We have a system according to which we decide what roles qualify for work permits. Employers have to meet a set of minimum terms and conditions so that workers are not exploited.
Employers need to make an effort to recruit from the entire European Economic Area, from which they may recruit, including places like Romania and Bulgaria, for example, where many agriculture workers come from. If they are not able to recruit, there is a system by which every six months we decide what professions and what occupations qualify and they have to make a submission. Every six months we update that list. We have updated it a lot. For example, we have included home carers in recent months and pretty much anyone who works in construction. Therefore, it could be done, but those basic terms and conditions must be met because it is right and proper that we protect the incomes, terms and conditions of workers who come from Ireland and other parts of Europe.
The National Transport Authority, NTA, plans to remove the 13, 68 and 69 buses which run from Clondalkin, Ratoath, down the Naas Road through Bluebell, Inchicore and into the city centre through Thomas Street, Camden Street and Islandbridge, and replace them with a single hourly service. There is significant opposition from commuters affected by this plan and the connecting communities action group is running surveys to oppose it. This move creates a public transport black spot and is a disaster for the elderly and anybody with mobility issues or children jumping two or three buses. I already requested the NTA to meet public representatives and residents from the area but it has refused. Does the Taoiseach stand over that? The NTA should respond to requests of this nature. We are holding a day of action at 11 a.m. on Saturday at the Bluebell bus stop and we will be raising this issue on the streets of our area.
I appreciate this is an important issue for the Deputy and her constituents. I cannot speak on behalf of the NTA which has its statutory remit and does not have to get Government approval for decisions of this nature. However, I know the NTA has met with community representatives and residents before, and I do not see why it should not on this occasion.
I apologise for being absent last night when the Topical Issue debate was due to deal with the issue I will now raise again, that of family legislation reform. I congratulate the Minister on her success to date and her intentions to carry out those reforms by the end of the year. I am asking today for a preliminary inquiry into the activities which are ongoing and which are to the distinct disadvantage of many mothers and some fathers, and are a serious dereliction of what the public should expect. I would ask that that be done as a means of informing further the debate that will take place by the end of the year.
While it might not have been an inquiry, I understand a review of that nature was done which I think the Deputy has seen. I would need to talk to the Minister for Justice and the Deputy offline as to what the next appropriate steps might be.
It is well known that Cork has the longest road network in Ireland. A statistic that is probably less well-known is that last year Cork had the highest number of road fatalities. There were 14 fatal incidents in Cork last year with 11 of those in the western division in west Cork. Despite those alarming statistics, Cork ranks third lowest in funding for the road network. On average it has €1,000 per kilometre less than the average for other counties. It is high time that Cork started getting the investment in its road network that it deserves. It is high time that important roads like the N71 serving areas like west Cork are funded. It is all well and good to talk about reducing speed limits. However, on most sections of the N71 it is not possible to reach 80 km/h and so that would make no difference. We need substantial investment in our roads in Cork. I ask the Taoiseach to make that a priority for budget 2024.
It is really shocking to see the increase the number of road fatalities in the past year. Given so many years of progress to see such an increase this year is really shocking. I know the condolences of the House will be extended to all the families and communities affected. The quality of our roads forms part of road safety but it is not the only part. Driver behaviour is much more significant as is enforcement and other such matters. We should not lose sight of what the major factors are. Regarding funding for road maintenance and restoration, local authorities have a number of sources of funding which they can put towards road maintenance. That includes direct grants from Government, the proceeds of the property tax, commercial rates and other charges like development levies. Local authorities have a reasonable degree of discretion as to how much they spend on their roads. I agree that the grants from Government should be increased in the forthcoming budget but we need to decide how much we can afford to do within the context of the 6.2% spending rule.
I raise the issue of children with additional needs in relation to physical and mental abuse in educational settings. One new group that was recently established to address the issue had 87 families join in one week. The most vulnerable group of children are in these settings. One comment struck me. It said, "You can't speak. There's no law to protect you." These children and young people have been let down and schools and teachers have also been let down with little or no multidisciplinary service. I ask the Taoiseach to ensure that there is an external investigation into these allegations. Will he commit to ensuring that their voices are heard?
I thank the Deputy for his question. It is critical that all children are treated equally, humanely and with respect and compassion, particularly children with additional needs. Any child protection issues should be referred to Tusla and the Garda. I will bring the Deputy's comments to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Foley, under whose remit these issues lie and also to the inspectorate.
I want to raise the issue of school transport. Bus operators are finding it next to impossible to recruit drivers. Bus Éireann has a criterion that drivers over 70 years of age cannot drive school buses which is nonsensical. It is an ideal job for a retired person. Those over 70 may drive a tourist bus from Mizen Head to Malin Head, but cannot drive the 5 km or 10 km around their local schools. This needs to be revisited. At the moment certain routes are without buses because operators cannot source drivers. Bus Éireann needs to revisit this. If a person needs to have a medical every six months, so be it, but the age criterion of 70 years of age must be removed.
That issue has been raised on a number of occasions in the House and I have never received a satisfactory explanation as to why that rule exists because private bus operators have drivers aged over 70. I understand that on occasion Bus Éireann will contract private operators with drivers aged over 70. It may be linked to their pension scheme or to an agreement with unions. I do not honestly know, but it definitely should be revisited.
This day last week I sat in the schoolyard of Gaelscoil na Camóige. Thankfully it was not a day like today because regardless of the weather, the 30-year celebrations for this school would have to have happened outside because it has no other option. After 30 years, there is still no permanent building for Gaelscoil na Camóige. Unfortunately, it is just one of a long list of schools in my area awaiting a permanent building, an extension or a new school. These include Gaelscoil na Camóige, Scoil Chrónáin, St. Thomas, Scoil Áine Naofa, Divine Mercy, Gaelscoil Chluain Dolcáin, Educate Together National School Rathcoole, Gaelscoil Lir in Saggart, Griffeen Community College, Lucan Community College, Coláiste Pobail Fóla in Saggart and my own secondary school, Holy Family Community School, which we all expected would break ground this year. When will bricks be laid in school yards in my constituency?
I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. I know that Dublin Mid-West, not unlike my constituency of Dublin West has a rapidly growing population and therefore needs many new schools and school extensions. They are happening. I know many have already happened in Lucan, Clondalkin and Rathcoole. We have a very big school building programme with funding of over €1 billion a year. Of course, it will never be possible to build every school as quickly as we would like to, but we do have a pipeline of developments. Regarding the particular issue the Deputy raised, I will make contact with the Minister, Deputy Foley's, office and try to get a comprehensive reply as soon as possible.
On Monday ICTU announced the intention of SIPTU, Fórsa and INMO members to initiate indefinite strike action from 17 October over the Government's ongoing refusal to properly address the pay disparity for section 39, section 10 and section 56 workers. It was fairly clear that the Government knew the offer made in July would be rejected. The Government now has three weeks to engage seriously and make a sufficient offer to the unions to ensure that this issue is dealt with. Section 39 organisations provide adult disability services and some children's disability services. They are already curtailing their services because they cannot get staff to provide a full service. They are haemorrhaging staff to the section 38 organisations and the HSE.
If this issue is not addressed properly, those services will close and the HSE will have to provide them. That will cost an awful lot more money. Please, can the Government engage seriously?
I do not think it is correct to say that the Government expected the offer would be refused, because a very similar offer was accepted by the community and voluntary sector when it was put to a ballot. There was an 80% vote in favour. On this occasion, a decision was taken by the unions not to put the offer to a ballot of their members. It is unfortunate that did not happen. I believe there is time for engagement between now and the date that has been set for strike action. It is to be hoped it can be averted.
What action is being taken to prevent the catastrophic ecological collapse of our lakes and rivers, as has happened north of the Border with Lough Neagh. Successive governments, many with Sinn Féin ministers, have enabled the ecocide of the largest lake on this island. A combination of sewage and agricultural run-off, commercial sand dredging, climate change and invasive species is responsible. Ecosystems that have thrived for hundreds of thousands of years have been destroyed by the profiteering of modern capitalism. Pollution knows no borders and the same destruction is happening in the South. Some 45% of our water bodies are in an unsatisfactory condition. The Government's enabling of nitrates pollution by big dairy and agrifood is the main culprit, yet the Taoiseach continues to defend the toxic nitrates derogation. We need to organise a mass, all-island movement of people power to defend our lakes, rivers and protect the rights of nature. All of our futures depend on it.
I cannot speak for Lough Neagh. That is in Northern Ireland. As the Deputy points out, perhaps others can answer those questions. Regarding water quality, we have a big investment programme in improving our water quality, led by Irish Water. Many things contribute to pollution in our waterways. It is not all about farmers. It is not right to speak to them as if they are entirely to blame for everything that is wrong with our water quality. There is human waste as well and industrial waste. All of that needs to be reduced, and that is very much part of what we are doing.
In the national positive ageing strategy, the Government promises to look after our ageing population. The promise is failing extremely in many different areas. In my constituency, Kildare South, I have an 83-year-old gentleman who was admitted to his local hospital when he became unwell. He had the added complication of very severe leg ulcers, which require frequent dressing changes to prevent infection. Incredible though it may be, the hospital did not and could not obtain an appropriate dressing for this man's wounds as the HSE would not provide them, meaning his family had to bring dressings supplied from home to hospital. On his discharge, it transpired that neither the public health nurse nor his GP had access to the correct dressings. Following a long battle from my office, his family had to travel to St. James's Hospital to get a three-day supply. In the meantime, the family was left with no option but to use nappies to dress his wounds. The Taoiseach is a GP. This is incredible and not good enough. I am of the opinion that the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, needs to know what is going on in hospitals and to make sure there is appropriate equipment and dressings to support people with needs.
I thank Deputy Ryan for raising the issue. It is difficult for me to answer it without knowing the details. I know that hospitals and GP surgeries have access to dressings. Maybe there is a particular dressing in this case. It is difficult for me to answer without knowing all the facts, but if the Deputy wants to correspond with me or the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, on it, we will try to come up with a more suitable answer.
In line with our ongoing commitment to support those fleeing war-torn Ukraine, is it the Government's intention to continue to apply a different approach to those seeking international protection under our own legislation and those fleeing Ukraine under the EU's temporary protection directive? Is the Taoiseach aware that while we provide €38.80 per week for those seeking international protection, we are a complete outlier in the EU and neighbouring countries with the provision of €220 per week for those fleeing Ukraine? According to the European Centre for Parliamentary Research and Documentation, this is more than twice that provided by the next highest country, Finland, at €107, and almost 28 times more than the €7.90 per week provided in Belgium. Will the Government acknowledge that such an anomaly amounts to the effective marketing of Ireland as the preferred location for those fleeing war-torn Ukraine? Will the Government adjust our policy to provide an element of balance with other countries, given the inordinate pressures on accommodation in this country?
We treat people coming here from Ukraine differently from those seeking international protection. People coming here from Ukraine are coming from a country at war. It is a European country. They have the benefit of the temporary protection directive, which gives them particular rights under EU law that people claiming international protection do not have. That is the reason for the difference in treatment. We are constantly looking at what our offering is for refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine versus what is offered in other EU countries. We have to be sensible about these things and we try to align what is done in Ireland with what is done in other European countries. For example, the Deputy will know that charges have been brought in recently for food and board, which were not there in the past for people who have come from Ukraine. That work is very much under way and ongoing.
The European Union patent court system came into force on 1 June and it has been ratified by 17 countries but we are not one of them. This is important for Irish business, inventors, entrepreneurs, researchers and others in the country generally. When will we publish legislation so that we can hold a referendum to ratify this European patent court and join the court itself? Has the Government any idea of when the referendum might be held?
The Minister, Deputy Coveney, is in charge of ratification. We want to join the European patent court. We do not have a definite date yet but we are working towards holding that referendum concurrently with the local and European elections next year. That is not formally or officially decided, but it is the working plan at the moment. It is up and running now and we are keen to be part of it.
A few months ago, I attended a meeting in Thurles which was organised by Limerick and Tipperary Woodland Owners. The meeting was organised to address and highlight the issue of ash dieback, which affects many constituencies, including my own, Laois-Offaly. The Irish Farmers' Journal has reported that 6,000 families are affected and 70,000 acres in total are affected. Will compensation be provided to those affected? I know those affected, including many businesses which are involved in forestry as well as landowners and farmers, spoke. There is much upset and frustration. If we are to restore the confidence that has been lost in the forestry sector and encourage people to get involved in afforestation, it is essential that compensation packages be provided in the forthcoming budget. I am asking for certainty today.
I am afraid I cannot give the Deputy certainty today but it is something that we are considering. Many people who invested in forestry were encouraged to do so by Government and given Government grants. For many of them, this would potentially have been their pension. Now, through no fault of their own, they see their crop has been destroyed. For similar crops in similar circumstances, we would provide a compensation package. We are examining it seriously and sympathetically. We just need to see what is being done in other European countries, for example. We are genuinely going to make a decision on it sooner rather than later.
The British Government's legacy Bill is appalling legislation. Sadly and unfortunately, it has passed through the House of Commons and House of Lords. The only credible thing to do with this legislation would be to bin it in its entirety. As I have said in this House so often, it absolves those responsible for conflict-related murders and other deplorable crimes of such evil and vile deeds. To add insult to injury and shamefully, this is under the guise of reconciliation. This legislation dismissively betrays victims and their families, adding to their long-standing grief and trauma. It must be clearly stated again and again in blunt terms to the British Prime Minister that he must take cognisance of the concerns of all advocacy groups working on behalf of victims and a shared view from both political traditions on this island, from all political groupings, from human rights organisations nationally and internationally, and from the Council of Europe.
I am in 100% agreement with Deputy Smith's remarks on this matter. I hope to have the opportunity to speak to the Prime Minister next week at the European Political Community meeting in Granada.
We will once again have an opportunity to impress on him the deeply felt opposition of the Government, of the five major parties in Northern Ireland, and particularly of victims' groups and survivors. This is not the right approach. We believe it will be struck down, if not in the UK Supreme Court then in the European Court of Human Rights, but it should not come to that.