Thursday, 9 November 2023
Ceisteanna ar Pholasaí nó ar Reachtaíocht - Questions on Policy or Legislation
It is now more than a month since more than 80 GPs and 11 consultants from my county and that of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine wrote to the Minister for Health expressing their grave concerns at the deepening crisis in Letterkenny University Hospital. They have requested that the Minister for Health travel to Donegal to meet them urgently. The Minister for Health is sitting three seats away from the Minister, Deputy McConalogue. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine said on Highland Radio that the Minister for Health would come to Donegal. One month on, the Minister for Health has still not come to Donegal, has not met with them and has refused to take up that offer despite the crisis and despite the unprecedented intervention. On two separate occasions two weeks in a row the Minister for Health refused to come before this House to debate a Topical Issue with me and Deputy Mac Lochlainn on this crisis in Letterkenny.
I ask the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, or indeed the Minister for Health if he wants to discuss this, to stand up and be counted. The health professionals in Donegal, 80 GPs and 11 consultants, have made an unprecedented intervention to highlight the serious crisis at the hospital. They are demanding that the Minister for Health travel there. It is a month on and he has not shown them the respect to go to Donegal, meet them and hear their concerns. We want to hear his response.
In fact, I wrote back to the GPs immediately and on the basis of their concerns and the urgency they raised, I said that on a Dáil sitting day I could meet them here or we would do a video conference call. They declined that offer. The offer stands. My understanding is that the issues raised are serious. What we have done is we have immediately sent an expert team into Letterkenny hospital because we need to have an evidence-based conversation. The Deputy will be aware and the people of Donegal will be aware that there has been a very substantial increase in healthcare funding for the hospital and for Donegal community-based services. The GPs are absolutely correct in raising the issue of the increased trolley numbers; we are determined to get to the bottom of it. It is why I have sent in the expert group so that when I meet the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, Deputy Doherty and the GPs in Donegal we can have a conversation informed by what the expert group tells us.
There is a deeply concerning report in The Irish Timestoday by Jack Power about the Peter McVerry Trust. It outlines that in 2018 the trust bought nine apartments in Birr, County Offaly, which had been developed by the then auditor of the charity.
This raises very serious and obvious conflict-of-interest concerns. The level of homelessness has exploded under Fianna Fáil's watch by nearly 50% since July 2020. The State will spend over €240 million on homelessness services next year. Vital public services have been outsourced to homelessness charity corporates. What is emerging are serious governance issues in the Peter McVerry Trust. Two investigations are under way, one by the Charities Regulator, another by the Approved Housing Bodies Regulatory Authority. I do not expect that the Minister will comment on those but he can answer the following. Will the Government bail out the trust with emergency funding? Has a decision been made on that? How large is the bailout being sought by the trust? Will it be €5 million or more? Importantly, does the Government have concerns about funding or other governance issues in some of the other approved housing bodies?
I will bring Deputy Nash's concerns to the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. Deputy Nash is fully aware that reviews are ongoing in terms of the Peter McVerry Trust, so it would be inappropriate to comment publicly on the issue, but the matters he raises are very serious and I will bring them back to the Minister, Deputy O'Brien.
I am sorry to see that he is gone because this morning, "RTÉ Investigates" revealed that the Dental Council had written to the Government about what it termed the indefensible lack of regulation and legislative reform in respect of dentistry. In September it was revealed that several people practising dentistry in this country are unregistered, including one individual who has been convicted of sexual assault. We also know that in the past eight years, 37 dentists have worked in Ireland despite having been sanctioned in other jurisdictions. The Dental Council is powerless to do anything about these cases because it is operating under 40-year-old legislation. In addition, none of the new provisions of the regulated professions Act of 2020 have been commenced. When will the Minister engage in this important issue and ensure patient safety?
Does the Minister think there has ever been any other government in the world that has been told it could have an additional €14 billion in revenue and said, "No, we do not want it", and then went on to spend €8 million in legal fees fighting to ensure we do not get the money? That €14 billion is more than three times the housing budget. Imagine what that money could do to address the housing crisis. Now we have an opinion from the advocate general of the European Union saying that the original ruling, effectively, was correct. Remember what that ruling was, that Apple was paying only 1% tax when it was supposed to be paying 12.5%-----
I thought, when Deputy Boyd Barrett was starting his contribution, that he was referring to the budget surplus this year, which has been significantly contributed to by corporation tax revenue. As I mentioned to Deputy Doherty earlier, the tax code we have had in this country and the pro-business approach has been central to transforming this economy, to making Ireland what it is today and to making sure that, unlike many of our European counterparts, we have been able to step in, by virtue of having a good economic situation, to help families and businesses through challenges, including inflationary challenges, at the moment, something we would not be able to do if we had followed the policies of the far left or People Before Profit. We would not have a State that we could help people with and would not have the economy we have. There is an issue there, which I discussed earlier, which is currently under consideration by the courts. Therefore, I am not in a position to comment on that particular-----
Last night in the agriculture committee, we had representation in from the Shannon Callows. We had Michael Smith, Liam Broderick and Pat Ryan and, basically, they set out for us what they are going through annually along the Shannon Callows with the flooding. I welcome the fact that the Minister has brought in a fodder scheme but they want to see the detail of that and they want to know if the Government can increase the number of hectares to 25 ha and allow for grazing that was lost as part of that compensation. Finally, we have an issue that compensation will not resolve, and that is the flooding. The reason we have that is that we have so many directives and rules and regulations and we are putting a new planning regime at the moment through legislation. I ask the Government to put a new definition on what is called an emergency. At the moment flooding is not an emergency because the flooding will go away, which is incredible.
I know this is something Deputy Canney raises with me and my Government colleagues regularly. I see the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, here this morning. She has been raising this with me persistently over the course of the past few months, as have my Government colleagues in Roscommon, Offaly and Westmeath. I have responded to that and taken on board the challenges that have been facing farmers because not only did we have the significant flooding earlier in the summer at a time when it was important in terms of making fodder, but it has been quite chronic since that as well and very unusual and acute in terms of the experience for those farmers. I have moved to put in place a scheme that particularly addresses the issue of fodder and facing the winter coming. It is a strong and balanced scheme and one which I think will provide the support that is needed to farmers. The wider point the Deputy makes about continuing weather events and the need to ensure we are more resilient in respect of the climate and how we farm and how we manage our land into the future is an important one, and that is something I will consider further, particularly as regards the Shannon Callows. I will liaise with the Deputy, Government colleagues and, particularly, farmers in the area on the challenges we will face in the time ahead.
On the same topic, the issue of calendar farming in this country is a nonsense. We have had such a wet year this year and now 1 December is fast approaching and we have a cutoff for the final derogation, I am told, for burning of scrub and bushes. Farmers have to maintain their hedgerows. The roads will be closed in if this cannot be done any more. They also have to have sensible burning on the mountains, as do very many gun clubs that manage their stocks. This derogation has to be extended because you cannot go into the land to cut the bushes, and where they are cut farmers cannot go in to remove them. In any case, when we stop the burning of them we will have to mulch them, which involves a bigger carbon footprint with fuel in the machines trying to get them out, mulching them and then moving on to chip. What the Government is proposing is a pure, patent nonsense. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is running riot in this Government and other Government Members are allowing him to do whatever he wants to do. This derogation has to be extended. You cannot go into the land at the moment. As I said, where the bushes are cut they cannot be removed and, anyway, the nonsense of trying to have them all shredded or made into mulch has a bigger impact on the carbon footprint and will have going forward. These nonsensical guidelines are ridiculous.
This is something I have engaged on to make sure we did have extra time and we get much longer than is available under the regulations to continue with this. I hear Deputy McGrath raise the calendar farming issue regularly. If we were to follow his approach, we would be spreading slurry in November and December.
As I said, in November and December, if it is dry, Deputy McGrath thinks we should be out spreading slurry. That is what I hear from him all the time. I never hear Deputy McGrath advocate things which are sensible.
Deputy McGrath has about 15 or 16 years behind him sitting there giving out about everything. He has not delivered a penny into a farmer's pocket and has not delivered very much for his constituency, so I will not take any lectures from him. We have to have proportionality and common sense, something-----
This week we had the historic incorporation of St. Angela's, Clogherevagh, into Atlantic Technological University, ATU. This was a most special occasion for the Ursuline Sisters, who founded the college back in 1952 and who championed third level education for women in very different times such that now St. Angela's, as part of ATU, can continue to provide the highest levels of academic excellence for its students.
However, further substantial resources are needed to make up for the historic shortfall in capital funding to all of the colleges in ATU. Figures from the Northern and Western Regional Assembly show that between 2012 and 2022, higher education institutes in the region received 28% less capital funding per undergraduate than the national average. The Minister knows this region well and this 28% shortfall in funding is unacceptable. I ask the Minister to see what can be done to reverse this as a matter of urgency.
I will refer this to the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris. I join the Deputy in congratulating St. Angela's College in becoming part of Atlantic Technological University. That is due recognition of the wonderful legacy of St. Angela's College over the years and of the work the Ursuline Sisters have done in establishing the college and bringing it where it is today. It has a strong future within the ATU structure. ATU has done tremendous work across the region, from Letterkenny to Galway and across the region. It is important that the colleges are appropriately funded and that is something the Minister has been working to ensure is the case. I will pass on the Deputy’s representations.
I raise again the issue I have raised on numerous occasions in the past, namely, the ongoing difficulties experienced in the family law issues that are ongoing and that have been decided on, the discrimination against mothers and fathers of children, to the extent that parents are barred from seeing their children indefinitely. This has been raised in various other parliaments across Europe. It has been raised on discrimination grounds by freedom-thinking people across Europe and I raise it again in the hope that there can be an emergency intervention to cease the current practices until legislation comes into force.
Following on from today's discussion in the Dáil I will engage on this with the Minister for Justice and relay Deputy Durkan's views. The Deputy is a strong advocate on this issue and I will ask the Minister to engage with him directly on it.
Dublin City Council has said that council homes will be left derelict and boarded up next year due to funding cuts by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. This is despite the fact that there has been an underspend in recent years in the Department. As there is money in place and there is a housing crisis, why are we cutting funds to Dublin City Council to deal with derelict and boarded-up council housing?
I visited Dublin City Council on Tuesday and we discussed matters in a range of areas, among those dereliction and vacancy. It has put together a collaborative team within the local authority in that area. I note the point the Deputy raised on voids. We want to see voids coming back into use as quickly as possible. The target is 2,300 overall this year and we have €31 million set aside. I will bring the matter the Deputy raised to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and I will personally take it up with Dublin City Council.
I have spoken to the Minister a number of times this week about the devastation there has been in north County Louth with floods. Dundalk had a fair amount of flooding that could have been a lot more major. I would say to the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donnell, that I will be having a conversation on the need for a drainage area plan that has been promised by Irish Water, and that needs to happen. The likes of Bay Estate, Cluain Enda, Avondale and areas in my part of Dundalk would be under severe pressure. I would welcome that conversation with the Minister of State. We need supports for roads and infrastructure. We welcome the emergency business relief and humanitarian aid schemes but farmers have specifically asked for something to help with feed and damage to lands and such. We need to look at that, particularly for the Cooley Peninsula.
This is an issue the Deputy has raised with me and Senator McGreehan has been raising it with me in great detail and providing me with documentation and evidence on the damage we have seen. We have put in place humanitarian assistance for businesses and homeowners, which was important. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael McGrath, visited the area, accompanied by Senator McGreehan, to visit businesses and homes. I thank the Deputy for raising this and it is something I am considering. I am taking on board the submissions there are, assessing the extent of it and I will respond to the Deputy and continue to work with Senator McGreehan on the challenges and real difficulties people have faced in north Louth.
Over two weeks ago we had a major flooding incident in Cork as well, around the city and in east Cork. I am lucky in that my home town of Glanmire has a flood relief scheme that just started. That did not mitigate the worst impacts of what happened but at least we have a scheme under way. Unfortunately, many other areas in Cork do not. The contractor on site in Glanmire is due to do works between July and September next year to coincide with certain fishing seasons and so on. The contractor is indicating that it would like to do that work in January, out of season, but that requires ministerial consent. I ask the Minister to go back to the relevant Minister, under inland fisheries, and to the Government and get that consent as urgently as possible. As I said, fortunately we have a scheme in place and we can do works and take active mitigation measures in the interim but many other areas are not as fortunate.
This is an issue the Deputy has been a strong advocate on, and as he says, completing proper flood defences makes a massive difference. That is something we need to see stepped out in all of those towns and villages that face challenges. I take on board the point the Deputy is making on the plans and the appointment of a contractor. I will liaise with the Office of Public Works on that and on the points the Deputy raises. We need to see the investment that is being committed to and the plans that are under way delivered as quickly as we possibly can in order that people can have confidence that the defences for their homes and businesses are in place in the event that we see future weather events, which we all know will be more common in the time ahead.
I raise the issue of University Hospital Limerick and the accident and emergency department there, which I have probably raised every week since I was elected in 2016. Last October saw a record number of 2,043 people on trolleys there and today there are 106 people on trolleys. In 2020 we had 18,012 people on trolleys and we have already surpassed that figure this year. It is a scandal. I remind Members that each of these people have been assessed and deemed in need of a hospital bed but there is no bed available for them. The programme for Government commits to significant additional capacity and yet, year on year, the numbers at University Hospital Limerick get worse. The new bed block, which will deliver 48 new beds, is far short of the 200 beds that University Hospital Limerick says it needs. It is a disgrace that the people of Limerick and the mid-west are treated in this manner. If the Minister were to visit the hospital he would find young and old stacked together in hallways, deprived of the dignity and privacy one would expect in such a sensitive setting. When will the Government take action? The Minister for Health seems unable or unwilling to even answer questions in either Chamber, let alone tackle these issues.
I thank the Deputy for his question. The Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, was in here this morning with me at 9 a.m. answering questions on health for 90 minutes. Deputy Wynne put the question of University Hospital Limerick and the issues there to him. There is an acceptance and acknowledgement that there are a lot of issues with capacity but work on the new €90 million project, consisting of a 96-bed inpatient block and renal dialysis unit commenced in October 2022. The construction phase will take at least two years to complete and it is currently envisaged that it will be complete by quarter 1 of 2025. I acknowledge that the Deputy raises this continuously but we are doing everything we can to try to alleviate the pressures in patient flow throughout all acute hospital sectors.
I am reluctant to come into the House and raise the following issue again but unfortunately the numbers are going in the wrong direction. In the children's disability network team in my area of community healthcare organisation 9, the numbers are going in the wrong direction by 80, from 2,795 in June of this year to 2,873 as of the end of September. This means we have thousands of children waiting for assessment, never mind therapeutic support, which is an essential part of a child's capacity to access the education system.
I wish to make it very clear that I acknowledge the tenacity with which and the manner in which the Minister of State is carrying out her duties in this area but, unfortunately, the numbers are going in the wrong direction and children are suffering as a result. It is incumbent on me to ask at this point for a very serious all-of-Government approach to resolving this matter.
I thank the Deputy for raising this. I acknowledge that the numbers in his area are going in the wrong direction. This is true just in his area but in many areas and that is why when we launched the PDS roadmap approximately two weeks ago, one of the pieces within is the tender document for procuring additional supports outside of the HSE to ensure assessments of need are carried out in a timely fashion. The procurement document will be finished tomorrow and will be with me by Monday. At that stage, we will be able to intervene to ensure that assessments of need start to happen more quickly.
It is Government policy to promote and protect Irish exports and imports. The haulage sector needs a properly functioning, and more importantly, very reliable Revenue customs system. Unfortunately, in the past number of months, Revenue's online automated export system and automated import system, AES and AIS as they are known, have routinely dropped creating very long delays and additional and unacceptable costs for hauliers at ports, meaning they cannot have their goods cleared and approved. Hauliers have highlighted their ongoing concerns and frustration on this matter with me. I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister for Finance asking for direct information from Government. Unfortunately, this has not happened yet and hauliers are still experiencing these increasing problems. However, it is not only the hauliers this will damage; this will damage our international reputation as a high-export country. I ask the Minister if he will ensure that Government intervenes immediately with Revenue.
I thank the Deputy and will certainly liaise with the Minister for Finance, Deputy McGrath, on the fact that she has raised this matter today. The haulier and transport sector is the lifeblood of our economy, particularly as an export-orientated country that imports quite a bit as well. The sector makes the economy tick and go around. It is can be quite a difficult business at times and it has had its challenges over the past few years, particularly because of the extra challenges posed by Brexit. We have worked as a Government to put the infrastructure and the systems in place to try to make business and transport flow as effectively as possible. I will certainly raise these issues with the Minister and I have no doubt he will engage with the hauliers as he too recognises how important they are to our economy.
A national hospital that is six years late and €1.4 billion over budget; an opaque HSE coming down with management that can swallow up billions of euro but cannot make a decision; €300 million spent on Dublin metro projects without any construction; dozens of flood defences stuck in a banjaxed planning and court system; not one approval for a wind farm in 12 months and just seven offshore wind turbines built in 20 years; more than 100 electric buses sitting for 18 months due to a lack of charging points; 500 modular homes that were meant to be built in October 2022 yet to be delivered; €22 million worth of dodgy ventilators bought by the HSE being stored at a cost of €75 million; spending €18 million fighting €14 billion of Apple tax due to Ireland; and €10 million of HSE rent overpayments because someone mismeasured the rooms. No one is ever held responsible or held to account. When it comes to administration, is this one of the most wasteful Governments in the history of this State?
Deputy Tóibín must be in his element because nobody likes to talk and spend all day talking about challenges and problems more than himself. He has even exceeded his own capacity to do that in that one-minute contribution. This is a Government that is trying to make progress everyday on infrastructure and public services.
We acknowledge there are challenges regarding planning and making things happen quickly because we are impatient as a Government for progress and impatient to make sure we can see how we are managing the economy translating into good public services and improved public infrastructure. One of the challenges around that has been our planning system. What the Government has done, following great work from the previous attorney general Paul Gallagher who made this his signature Act, is bring forward the third largest Bill ever in the history of this State, namely the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2023, which will go through the Oireachtas over the course of this winter to try to address some of those challenges. I look forward, but not with much optimism, to a positive contribution from the Deputy himself to make sure this Bill goes forward-----
In his capacity as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue visited the Glenasmole Valley in my constituency last year to highlight quite rightly the threat that out-of-control dogs can pose to livestock. While both of us recognise that the vast majority of dog owners in this country are very responsible and while welcoming the measures announced by the Minister today regarding possibly extending the list of restricted breeds, I also acknowledge there has been an increase in attacks by dogs on individuals both in Ireland and abroad. They seem to be increasing. While acknowledging and accepting what the Minister is doing, does he also accept that enforcement is what this is all about? The number of on-the-spot fines that people have to pay can be increased and the range of restricted breeds can be widened but if people continue to walk their dogs without muzzles that are meant to have muzzles or allow them off leashes in parks and on streets where they are meant to be on leashes and with muzzles, simply more enforcement is required. Does the Minister agree?
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I visited the Dublin Mountains with him and with the local Irish Farmers' Association, IFA, chairman Donie Anderson not so long ago and we discussed this issue. I know it is something on which the Deputy is a strong advocate. We have been working in government. Three Ministers have cross-departmental responsibility. Myself, the Minister of Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy O'Brien, have put a work group together to try to address some of these issues. We are finalising legislation at the moment to improve enforcement. However, the Deputy is right; enforcement is a key part of it, and also respect. This means respect on the part of those who own dogs for other people and how their dogs interact with the environment, and also respect for the animals themselves and how we ensure the animals are cared for and properly looked after.
I will try my best. I raise the issue of the imminent closure of a GP surgery in Kilrush in west Clare. For the past number of years, the HSE has provided temporary locums but that solution has been completely inconsistent and not ideal, as the Minister can imagine. I am looking for the Government, but, in particular, the Minister for Health, to give this GP practice their attention. As I have said previously in the House, County Clare is 25% below the national average in respect of GP services. Kilrush is the most deprived community in the county and it is at risk of losing even more basic services so more has to be done. We are also hearing of alternatives to attendances at emergency departments but if we keep losing GPs, that will be people's only option.
ALONE has published a report on housing adaptation grants. It reveals that almost 6,000 families across the country are on waiting lists for housing adaptations for loved ones, older people and people with disabilities. It also suggests that local authorities are turning down applications because of a lack of funding. Thousands of other people are not entitled to a grant because they are slightly above the threshold. They cannot afford to do the adaptation but their loved ones still need it. A review was due to be published by the end of 2022; it never appeared. On 10 May this year, the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donnell, told me they intended to make a decision on that pretty quickly. We are six months on. When are we going to get a decision and will the thresholds be increased?
I thank the Deputy for the question. We all know the importance of having GPs, especially in rural practice; we understand that. The Minister, Deputy Donnelly, spoke this morning about the plans they have put in place. For every two GPs who retire now, between three and six are entering into training. It will take a couple of years for that to work through. The Deputy may wish to send me an email on the specifics of the Kilrush GP practice. She said that the HSE has put in a locum and I am sure every avenue has been exhausted to try to get somebody in there. At the same time, the service is very important and I will raise it with the Minister's office.
I thank Deputy Murphy. In the current year, we have provided additional funding to any local authorities that came forward looking for it because we want to keep the applications being processed. If there are individual applications that are not being processed, the Deputy might bring them to my attention.
A review was completed. I came in as Minister for State and went through the review in great depth with my officials. We are currently in detailed discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform and we really want to bring those discussions to a conclusion as quickly as possible.