Thursday, 28 September 2023
Ceisteanna ar Pholasaí nó ar Reachtaíocht - Questions on Policy or Legislation
In 2021, a whistleblower revealed that the Department of Health was holding secret dossiers containing information on children with autism whose families were taking legal action against the State to ensure that the children's rights were upheld. On the other side of these challenges was the Department. When the scandal broke, it was claimed that there was nothing untoward in the Department's actions. We now know that is not the case. The Data Protection Commission, DPC, has found that the State was engaged in unlawful practice against vulnerable people. At the centre of all of this are vulnerable children and their families. In the words of one of them who has spoken to RTÉ, "What was done was completely and awfully wrong. ... I'm going to distrust the government for the rest of my life because of what has been done to me." His mother went to say, "I never got an apology. ... nobody else got an apology. Nobody got an apology." Given the unlawful actions that were going on within the Department, in some cases involving files being kept for as long as 20 years, the least I am sure the Tánaiste can do on behalf of the Government is apologise on behalf of the Government to each and every one of these children. Will the Tánaiste make that apology to them today?
First of all, I have not had time yet to go through the full report of the DPC. However, the DPC contacted the Department of Health in March 2021 following the airing of the "RTÉ Investigates" programme to notify the Department that the DPC was commencing an investigation on foot of the allegations regarding data processing raised in the programme. I am informed that the DPC did not find evidence on the 29 litigation files examined that the Department had proactively sought information from other Departments or co-defendants other than the HSE, as was claimed at the time. The DPC also did not find an infringement of data protection law arising from the fact that the Department stored this information for the purposes of defending litigation. The files relate to active litigation and the DPC recognised that there are a number of obligations that require defendants to retain documents that relate to open litigation.
That is shocking. There is clarification required. Is the Government's position that the Department did not break the law because, obviously, the Minister has decided not to apologise on this occasion? I would like clarification.
I have just arrived here from Bass Place in Dublin 2, a stone's throw from here, in my constituency. There is a terrace there of six houses that are on the Dublin City Council derelict sites register. We were there to highlight the need for the Government to take more effective action to tackle the scourge of vacancy and dereliction across the country. We are conscious that the numbers of sites represented on the derelict and vacant sites registers of local authorities underestimate the scale of the problem. We are calling on people to report vacant and derelict sites in their own area. We are calling on the Government to do more to tackle this scourge of vacancy and to do more to ensure reactivation of vacant homes, in particular, that could be repurposed to house our homeless people, so many of whom are now in emergency accommodation. According to Central Statistics Office, CSO, figures, there are approximately 160,000 vacant and derelict properties and yet Ministers are saying that the vacant homes tax, which the Government has brought in, will be largely ineffective with only 25,000 letters going out from Revenue this week.
Dublin, apparently, having said all of that, recorded the lowest vacancy rate national of 1% in the latest GeoDirectory Residential Buildings Report in June 2023. Local authorities need to be very proactive in utilising the powers that are already there in respect of dereliction and derelict sites. They need to be more proactive in implementing and enforcing the legislation.
Central government has provided significant funding and significant grants for people to refurbish and bring back to life derelict houses or buildings, and also vacant ones. There are very substantial grants for individuals, families or young couples in towns around the country under this scheme, which is a good initiative. On the Derelict Sites Act, there is an obligation-----
I want to ask the Tánaiste about the long-promised statutory right to home care. This was promised in 2018. It was supposed to be in place by 2021. Two years later, there is no sign of the legislation. The advisory group recommended improved pay and conditions for the staff, who are very badly paid. Over the summer, the Government cynically agreed to pay those new rates and improve the conditions but at the cost of older people who depend on these services. Very cynically, the Government took almost 2 million hours out of the allocation for this year meaning that older people are paying the price for this and the Government is doing nothing at all for the over 6,000 people who are on waiting lists. The Government has disimproved the situation from the point of view of older people who are dependent on this and it is incentivising people to go into nursing homes rather than stay at home. When will we see that legislation and why has it been so delayed?
Sorry, the Deputy needs to be honest about it too. There has been a dramatic improvement and increase. The only thing holding back home care has been the recruitment of people, not resources or funding.
Today is International Safe Abortion Day. Last night's healthy vote on moving forward on the safe access zones is to be welcomed. International Safe Abortion Day has huge relevance for many countries, including Malawi which I visited during the summer as part of a delegation to look at reproductive rights of women and girls. In one of the poorest countries in the world, crippled by IMF debt, this is a huge issue that kills thousands of young women and girls every year. It is not part of my question. I am just talking about the relevance of improving reproductive rights for women and girls. I have two questions for the Tánaiste, following on from last night's vote. Will the Government prioritise moving on the safe access zones legislation as quickly as possible? What is the real intention of the Government in relation to the review by Marie O'Shea on the need to extend the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018 to include removing the three-day wait, to decriminalise abortion and to ensure that the provision of abortion is not a lottery in this country and does not depend on where one lives or how much money one has in one's pocket?
First of all, globally, in terms of women's reproductive rights, Ireland, through its work on overseas development assistance and with other member states in the EU, does a lot of work in supporting the health and well-being of young girls and women across Africa and across many of the developing states. We work with the Clinton Foundation as well in that regard. In many locations, we have achieved very good outcomes in terms of reducing death, injury and ill-health.
In terms of last night's vote, the legislation will now progress to committee. It will be a matter for the Oireachtas, obviously, and the Minister to progress the legislation through the committee system of the Oireachtas. The Minister outlined to the House his plans and the steps he will take in respect of the report that the Deputy referenced.
In the beautiful village of Newbawn, in the heart of County Wexford, one will find the Sacred Heart National School, which has two special classes for severe-to-profoundly-deaf children. Fourteen pupils are currently enrolled in these special classes. To the best of my knowledge, it is the only school outside of Dublin to provide such classrooms. The National Council for Special Education announced in October last year that it was rolling out an Irish Sign Language, ISL, specialist to provide classroom support so that these pupils could be fully integrated into school life. It goes without saying that the presence of an ISL specialist to provide classroom support to 14 severe-to-profoundly deaf children at Sacred Heart would be invaluable, yet this role has not been sanctioned for Newbawn national school. Fourteen severe-to-profoundly deaf children are in need.
Why has an ISL specialist not been sanctioned for these two special classes? When will the appointment of an ISL specialist be made?
I do not have the details of the case so I cannot give a specific answer in respect of the school. There have been challenges in recruiting qualified personnel for posts of that kind. That may be the case for this school or post, but I do not know. The Deputy can give me the details.
Sewage discharge is far worse than what is coming off the land from agriculture. The University of Oxford revealed that sewage discharge into rivers has a greater impact on water quality and the animals and plant life in the rivers than effluent from farmers, despite the bashing of farmers all the time. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, is not honest on this and it must be challenged. It had a report saying there was 32 plants in the 26 Counties discharging sewage. There are 30 in Tipperary alone and it is not checking them. Irish Water must be compelled to stop this pollution of our rivers. We have the wonderful River Suir, a blueway. There is kayaking, walking and cycling along it but it is being polluted by villages, including my own. They are waiting for funding. The county councils have handed over responsibility Irish Water. Irish Water must be held to account and the Government must provide finance to do these works. It should not be demonising the farmers always when the State bodies are causing the problem here, according to this report.
We have been investing very significantly over the last three years in wastewater treatment. Phosphorus pollution is a clear issue in urban waste water and nitrates are in an agricultural context. We are not demonising farmers at all.
I have spoken to farmers in recent weeks. They are very interested in good methodology and good farming practice as well. They are as concerned as anyone to make sure our waterways are clean. Irish Water is the body responsible for the overall development of wastewater treatment plans.
The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is beside the Tánaiste so one or other might be able to answer my question. The Office of the Agri Food Regulator was established this year. At the time, I said the legislation was inadequate to provide the answers needed. Very clearly we need answers to explain the differential in the price of beef in the Republic of Ireland and in the United Kingdom. We export 70% of our beef and 50% of the beef we produce goes to Great Britain. There is a transport cost, obviously, but the differential in cost between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland seems inexplicable to me. The cost of transport to Northern Ireland to the mainland of Britain is not substantially greater than the cost of moving it from Wexford or wherever the processing plant is. Has the agri food regulator an explanation for this cost differential?
Deputy McNamara will know that for the first time in the history of the State we have had a statutory office in place to bring more transparency to the food supply chain, with the objective of making sure the massive hard work that our farm families do is rewarded in the price they get. Some 90% of the food we produce is exported. Our highest value markets are the EU and the UK, in particular. The office means it is open to everyone, including the Deputy, to make submissions in relation to issues the regulator can look into. I would encourage the Deputy to put his views specifically on this matter for consideration. Prices are a challenge. We are only-----
I am telling the Deputy that the office is in place and it is very much open to him to make a submission requesting the regulator to look at any particular issue. We are currently in the process of appointing the board which will oversee the work of the regulator and which will be able to feed into decision around particular issues to look at.
Drogheda's traffic is grinding to a halt every day. Indeed, the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, who lives locally will know that development north and south of the river is resulting in huge volumes of cars going into our town. It is being compounded by the closure of the Obelisk Bridge for essential repairs. It is a dangerous bridge which carried local traffic north and south of the Boyne without going into Drogheda. There can be queues of up to 100 cars waiting to get through a junction. People are very angry. Journey times for those going north and south in the town are increasing by around 45 minutes. Will the Tánaiste ask the Minister for the Environment, Climate Action and Communications, Deputy Ryan, to get Meath and Louth County Councils and Transport Infrastructure Ireland together to find a solution to this problem? Local people believe one solution must be to buy-out the toll, if possible. There is 11 years left to run on the contract. Can we find out what the figure is and, in the interim, find a solution? People are getting very angry and very distressed.
I will talk to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, on this to see if the various agencies can get together to resolve this. Invariably, these issues are not straightforward to resolve, as might appear at first glance, but I will talk to the Minister.
Irish school libraries are underfunded, under-resourced and are falling short international standards. The Department of Education only funds 4% of school libraries. This morning I was in my local Mercy Secondary School. It is a DEIS school where parents fundraise for the library but there is no librarian to bring this to life. Funding school libraries is the best way to ensure access to reading and books and make sure every young person has the best start in life. Currently, only 30 DEIS schools are part of the junior certificate school programme demonstration library project. That is 30 out of 235 DEIS schools. When will the other 200-odd DEIS schools get a funded library and a funded librarian so that we can get up to international standards again?
The Minister’s priority for DEIS was to engineer biggest expansion of DEIS since it was originally established in the early 2000s and the Minister has achieved that over the last two years, in terms of the number of schools covered by DEIS and all the teaching supports which is quite significant in terms of the reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio in DEIS schools and the other supports that follow with DEIS designation.
I agree with the importance of libraries. Some of the technology grants and supports can be used for online facilities, resources and supports. The priority this year was to bring in free books for primary school children. That has been successfully delivered from its announcement last year to enactment this September. It is something that many parents are very pleased with. We are committed to doing what we can to strengthen the resources around libraries in schools.
The purpose of the health information Bill 2023 will be to collect and share health information of a patient, ensuring that this information follows the patient throughout their care and treatment. It will also be important in furthering public heath management and clinical research. It has particular importance for patient care. What is the Bill's status? I think the Tánaiste will agree that it is in the interest of both patients and the health service for the Bill to be enacted as soon as possible.
I welcome the Deputy's raising this very important Bill. It is at pre-legislative scrutiny stage. I smile sometimes when people want something implemented as soon as possible. I often prefer that approach coming from the Opposition. If the Government brought in legislation and said we want to introduce it as soon as possible, the Opposition would cry "guillotine, guillotine" and all hell would break loose.
Disability Federation Ireland expressed concern today around 17 October, when section 39 workers have been forced to take industrial action and the impact this would have on the essential services they provide. I thank all the people who travelled from Mayo today to get their message across around poverty and disability and the impact of them. In particular, I was really struck by the fact they said that on 17 October we cannot have people lying in bed not able to get up. There are thousands of section 39 organisations throughout the State that will be impacted, many of them in Mayo. Despite the vital role they play, the HSE has confirmed to me that it does not even know how many people work in this hugely important sector. We know what needs to be done. They deserve the pay and conditions they would get in the public sector and they need to be included.
I accept what the Deputy is saying in respect of the challenges facing section 39 organisations. There were discussions between the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and the unions involved. We urge that those engagements would be restored and that we would have talks on this, and that the necessity for action on 17 October would be avoided. We do not want any distress caused to people who depend on these services daily. We would like to get these issues resolved and get into a process to get it resolved once and for all and on a sustainable basis.
This week the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment heard that sustainability is key to the long-term competitiveness of the food sector, which is not surprising. However, Enterprise Ireland and local enterprise offices, LEOs, report that only one in seven enterprises have taken up any of the Green Offer schemes. At the same time, we have deep supply chain problems in the sector impacting on water quality, the level of food waste, labelling and packaging issues, and carbon emissions. Would the Tánaiste and Minister agree to follow the Dutch example and create a sectoral compact right across the food sector to address circular economy issues, embracing producers and consumers, the Government and retailers? It is an approach that paid dividends in Holland and we should approach it in the same way.
That is a good suggestion. I will talk to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine with a view to putting forward the recommendation the Deputy has articulated for dealing with the issues that are critical for the sustainability of the food industry. There is much we can do in optimising the circular economy more generally.
I raise the issue of school transport. Since the Dáil resumed, it has been a bone of contention with many colleagues around the House. I want to raise in particular Tunnyduff National School. I am using it as an example. It is a rural school and there are 42 kids to this day without their school transport. The Tánaiste and I both know that 42 kids in a rural school is a significant proportion to be without their school transport. It is two classrooms. Joe Finnegan has spent the last three weeks highlighting many other schools around the constituency that are in the same position. I am very mindful of kids who have special needs whose school transport is still not in place. Could the Tánaiste, please, put everything behind the Minister, Deputy Foley? She and her staff have done an incredible job to try to resolve these routes. I ask the Tánaiste to make sure she has every resource available to continue that work.
I appreciate the Deputy raising this issue. School transport is a vital public service. In the 2022-2023 school year, for example, 149,000 children, including more than 18,000 children with special educational needs, were transported daily to primary and post-primary schools. I will talk to the Minister for Education in respect of Tunnyduff National School which the Deputy has highlighted. There have been issues on some occasions in sourcing contractors, or when contractors have been sourced they belatedly pull out, which has created difficulty. As of 22 September a number of routes do remain without a service. It is about 1.2% of pupils. I will talk to the Minister in respect of the case the Deputy has raised.
I want to raise the circumstances of people who signed contracts to purchase houses in Ring Fort housing development in Rathmolyon in County Meath, in some cases three years ago. Ring Fort is a development of 16 houses which is 99% complete. Some of these houses were purchased under the help to buy scheme. The development was financed by Home Building Finance Ireland, HBFI. The contractor is Meathamatic Limited, with directors Joe Elias, Mark Flynn and Peter Finn, who resigned his position 12 months ago. The construction company is MDS Construction Limited, with directors Mark Flynn and Peter Finn. Meathamatic is now looking for an additional €60,000 from people who signed contracts, a legally binding agreement. We cannot allow this to happen and set a precedent where, if they are not happy with the price agreed, contractors look for more money when the development is finished. The owners have written to the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Minster for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, with no response from any of them. I ask the Government to intervene and assist home buyers who have been held to ransom by the developers in Rathmolyon. It is a disgrace.
That behaviour is unacceptable in terms of the relationship between the developers and those who have purchased the houses. There are clear laws of contract and legal frameworks governing the purchase of houses which should be enforced. I will talk to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage in respect of it. However, we always have to be mindful that over recent years the State seems to be the last resort and has to intervene in every bad action or dispute. The law should apply here. We will check it out and I will talk to the Minister in respect of the specific issue. There is a matter of legal obligations that the developer should adhere to. I will follow it up.
We have seen a big debate in recent weeks on the funding of childcare places. There is a realisation that a one-size-fits-all solution does not fit for every circumstance. One area that is of real concern to me is childcare services that operate in disadvantaged areas and have a very high number of sponsored places. Some 30%, 40% or 50% of their places could be on the sponsored place scheme. There are no parents' fees to top that up. Many of those are in my area, including Our Nursery in Ballymun. People from that service contacted me as they are worried about its financial viability. They do not want to cap the number of sponsored places. They exist to try to meet that need for young people. They want the Department to tailor the sponsored place scheme to reflect the cost of providing those sponsored places.
I appreciate the Deputy raising this issue. As he said, the national childcare scheme is a scheme of financial support to help parents with the cost of childcare. A component of the scheme is a sponsorship referral which makes special provision for vulnerable children. Officials in the Department are aware of the issues the Deputy has highlighted regarding the sponsored subsidy rates to date. The issues are currently being examined as part of an internal review of the sponsored subsidy. Any changes will be considered as part of the forthcoming budget. It is important to note that supports are available to all services with financial viability concerns though a case management process. I think the Deputy probably has taken the cases to the Department. The Department oversees the process with the local city and county childcare committees and Pobal, working together to assess early learning and childcare services experiencing difficulties and to provide support as necessary. In the overall context, we are committed to dealing with disadvantage, tackling it through high-quality early learning and childcare that is affordable and accessible.
Starting this Sunday, Lahardaun and Bofeenaun communities are set to lose their GP service as it moves to Crossmolina. This move affects 1,100 medical card holders without them having any say in the process. Although we understand the HSE is trying to recruit more doctors, the ongoing empty GP post in Lahardaun is a critical issue.
The idea of merging the local Addergoole Medical Centre with Crossmolina is causing a great deal of fear among its community, and rightly so. I am firm on making the HSE answerable for keeping a GP service in Lahardaun. I suggest that a locum doctor be put in place in Lahardaun immediately, whose time could be split between the Addergoole and Crossmolina healthcare settings, until a permanent GP is appointed. Will the Tánaiste speak to the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, about this serious issue quickly? We need to ensure that we have fair healthcare for all. Lahardaun needs fast action now.
That is primarily an issue for the HSE locally to resolve. Sometimes, the HSE will readvertise a position. These situations have evolved through demographic issues and so forth, including challenges in general practice in rural Ireland particularly. I will ask the Minister to talk to the HSE, but he does not get involved in every case. I presume that the HSE is alive to the issue with a view to trying to resolve it, but I will speak to the Minister about it.
I understand that it is the Deputy’s birthday today, so I will wish him “Happy birthday” and hope he enjoys it.
Yesterday, the Garda Representative Association, GRA, made a decisive move in its ongoing dispute with the Garda Commissioner. Earlier this week, I extended an invitation to the GRA to come to Leinster House to give a cross-party briefing on the realities facing front-line gardaí and to ensure that their voices were heard. Community policing is vital in the inner city, but as a result of the new roster, it is being skinned to the bone. This is not acceptable. Front-line gardaí have told me that the number of community gardaí has been reduced by one third in preparation for the new roster. This will damage the Garda’s impact locally and set back years of hard work by community gardaí in the inner city. Will the Government intervene, stand up for front-line workers and protect community policing?
I will be brief. I wish to bring to the Tánaiste's attention an issue with the eligibility criteria used by Bus Éireann. I am dealing with a child who is attending her third-nearest school, or so Bus Éireann deems it. When I analysed how Bus Éireann calculated the route, I saw that it was strictly enforcing the term “the shortest traversable route”. To achieve that shortest traversable route and disqualify the child, Bus Éireann brought out a measuring wheel before I met it one week and walked 300 m through a housing estate to shave off a couple of hundred metres, thereby deeming the child ineligible. This is a fact - I met Bus Éireann on site. Is such a prescriptive interpretation by Bus Éireann in the spirit of the school transport system? The spirit of the system is to get children to school on a bus.
I wish to raise the issue of autism supports. The report of the Joint Committee on Autism made 109 recommendations. We all know the difficulties that parents face in terms of autism units and disability school transport. I am even hearing from crèches that they do not have the resources they need to provide support for a considerable number of the children with autism who are attending their facilities.
We know about the game of ping-pong between primary care and children’s disability network teams, not to even mention child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS. We know that we do not have enough speech and language therapists, occupational therapists or psychologists. Even if we get recruitment correct and have all the budgetary pieces in place, we will not rectify that in the short term. What plans are there to get the best bang for our buck and to provide the best supports for children and their families? The various Ministers, their Departments and the HSE need to engage on this and deliver.
I appreciate the opportunity. I wish to raise with the Tánaiste the issue of services for children with intellectual disabilities. I sent an email to community healthcare organisation, CHO, 1 on 28 July. I will read a part of it:
I am writing with regard to a family living in [Leitrim]. The daughter, Maggie ... (aged 10 years) has yesterday been discharged from CAMHS due to her condition being [considered an] Intellectual Disability. The Mother, Jennifer ... has been informed that there are no services locally for her to be referred to and [she] is not permitted to transfer to services in other areas or to access private services unless [she] can pay for it [herself]. The Mother [has] nowhere to access [private psychiatric services or to issue medication in those situations].
I received a brief acknowledgement of this email. I emailed again two months later but have heard nothing. I have rung the office of CHO 1’s chief executive several times about this issue. The situation is the same for many children across many parts of the country. There are four intellectual disability teams in the State, yet children who are in an area that does not have one are not allowed to transfer to any of them. I expect the reason is that the teams are overrun. The child in question had a tumour and went through two years of chemotherapy. This child needs help. Her parents are at their wits’ end, yet the HSE, which we as a State pay to provide these services, is not providing them. Something needs to be done urgently for this child and others in the same situation.
I thank the Deputies for raising these issues. Deputy Andrews referred to the GRA and the Garda situation. We support community policing and invest heavily in it, but the issues that remain outstanding in respect of the rosters should be resolved through the available industrial relations machinery. It is important that those avenues – the internal mechanisms and the established industrial relations mechanisms – be explored fully.
Deputy Pádraig O’Sullivan discussed school transport. What he described was not in the spirit of the school transport system. The spirit is to try to get access for children on buses and get them to school. The idea of using a measuring wheel to identify a route is not acceptable by any yardstick. We need a bit of common sense and to think about the child and the family with a view to sorting out this issue. I will speak to the Minister about this specific case and see where we can take it.
Deputy Ó Murchú mentioned the autism report. Without question, it is a matter of co-ordination and co-operation between all of the agencies. In my view, we need multidisciplinary teams in special schools. The HSE does not agree with me.
In schools is where I would have them. The Progressing Disability Services, PDS, programme has a different view, but coming from an education background, that is what I believe. We had it ad hocin the past before PDS and it worked in many areas. To be fair to the HSE, it will argue that children who were not in special schools did not get the same level of access, but children in special schools have severe and profound issues that need attention from the variety of therapists.
The issue described by Deputy Martin Kenny is not acceptable. Dual diagnosis and treatment should be available. There is an obligation on the HSE to provide for that young child and not to close doors to the treatment she requires.