Thursday, 16 November 2023
Ceisteanna ar Pholasaí nó ar Reachtaíocht - Questions on Policy or Legislation
Yesterday, the Minister and his Government shamefully voted against Sinn Féin's motion to refer Israel to the International Criminal Court for the war crimes and crimes against humanity and genocide that we are seeing in Gaza over the past month. This is as the bombs continue to rain down on the people of Gaza. This is as we continue to see infants, babies, dying in hospitals in Gaza as Israel targets schools, hospitals and places of worship.
The Minister may be aware that the President of South Africa, Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa, has announced that his country will refer Israel to the International Criminal Court, ICC, for war crimes in Gaza. We must use every single tool at our disposal to hold Israel to account for its crimes. Last year, the Government rightly joined with those of other countries in referring Russia to the ICC for war crimes. Palestinian lives are just as worthy of our attention as Ukrainian lives. In the pursuit of justice and accountability for the Palestinian people, will the Government change direction now and join with South Africa in referring Israel to the ICC for the war crimes that the Minister has said are difficult to watch on the news and that we see before our eyes every single day?
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The Government's position on this has been consistent and clear. The prosecutor of the ICC, Mr. Karim Khan, has reaffirmed that the investigation that is currently under way covers the current and ongoing conflict, including all events on and from 7 October this year. He is on record as saying that, so that is the position.
In relation to Ukraine, there is a distinction because the situation was fundamentally different. Ireland did refer Russia to the ICC prosecutor because Ukraine was not a party to the ICC statute and the prosecutor could not, therefore, begin an immediate investigation-----
Tuesday was National Diabetes Day. Diabetes is a condition with which approximately 300,000 people in this country live. We do not know the exact number because we do not have a national register. I have been working with Labour Party councillor, Mr. John Maher, in Cork, who lives with diabetes, on raising awareness and trying to force the Government into more action in this area. I have three different requests and I would like the Minister to bring to Government. Will the Government commit to providing a national register of people with diabetes? Will it commit to providing a ten-year strategic plan to ensure that people with diabetes have a plan for better care? Will it - and this is important - ensure that pregnant women with gestational diabetes are included in the long-term illness scheme? People are 65% more likely to develop diabetes if they have gestational diabetes. This issue is not getting enough attention. It has not been brought up at the health committee and has not been the subject of enough action on the part of the Government.
I thank Deputy Smith. I have some information here but I would like to double-check it. I will ask the Minister for Health to revert to the Deputy directly with a comprehensive response on the issues he has raised.
The Council of Europe's Congress of Local and Regional Authorities completed a review of local government, the report of which was adopted on 25 October. It was absolutely scathing of Ireland. It ranked Ireland just above Hungary, the Russian Federation and Moldova. We were poor right across the board. The review described our system as being more akin to local administration as opposed to local government. Local elections are due to be held next year. Will the Government respond to the findings and recommendations of this report in advance of those? Either we are serious about the European Charter on Local Self-Government and about the Council of Europe, or we are not.
I thank Deputy for her question. The Government will respond to the report in question. As the Deputy said, we will have local elections next year. This Government believes in local democracy and in empowering our local councils and giving them as much power as possible. As the Deputy knows, the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy O'Donnell, is currently bringing legislation through the House in respect of the Mayor of Limerick. I will ask him to respond to the Deputy on the specific issues she has raised.
The State and the Government are failing children with additional needs very badly. They are failing those on the long waiting lists for an assessment of needs and for therapies and those who are seeking to access education. I want to raise one particular case, that of a young man called Tadhg who is 11 years old. He is in sixth class in primary school and is looking forward to going to secondary school. He wants to go to.St. Joseph's, but the school has said that it cannot accept him without a new educational assessment. He has not had an educational assessment. The last assessment of needs he had was when he was three years and three months old. Understandably, the school has to know what his needs are in order to know whether it can assist him, whether it can take him in and provide for his education. His parents have been told that the local children's disability network team at Chamber House is no longer responsible for providing educational assessments. The National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, has said it does not have the resources to do it. I submitted a parliamentary question on this and was told that his parents should discuss their concerns with the school principal in the first instance, with a view to seeking the involvement of NEPS. Does the Department think that his parents had not thought of that before coming to me? They have obviously gone down that road. At the moment, Tadhg is not able to get an educational assessment and will lose his place in school.
It has been a year since this House unanimously supported a motion to extend special support for all front-line workers suffering from long Covid, yet today that commitment remains unfulfilled. While the Department of Health and the HSE have agreed to extend special payments for a period in excess of 28 months to 143 healthcare staff afflicted with long Covid symptoms, we must question the exclusion of those infected over the past 730 days, that is, since 15 November 2021. These dedicated individuals who contracted long Covid as a direct result of their heroic efforts during the pandemic are unjustly being denied the support they rightfully deserve. The time for partial measures is over. It is imperative that we make a decisive move to treat all front-line warriors equally and acknowledge long Covid as an occupational illness, regardless of what job these workers were doing or when they were infected. The Government must act. When will justice be served for every front-line worker, without exception?
I thank the Deputy. As he has acknowledged, the special leave with pay was extended in the case of many front-line workers in the healthcare area. As with any special scheme, there will always be terms and eligibility criteria. The Departments of Health and Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform have been engaging on this issue in the context of long Covid. I will ask the Minister for Health to revert to Deputy Naughten with a more detailed answer.
What is going on with An Bord Pleanála? There is a race track at Limerick Junction, called Tipperary Racecourse, which is on the border with County Limerick where Deputy O'Donoghue is based. A €40 million investment plan has been put together by the board but an objection has been lodged. They have the funding and a design, and planning permission from the council. An objection was submitted to An Bord Pleanála almost two years ago and still there is no reply. This has been kicked down the road but Tipperary needs this. It is a wonderful investment that will be made in collaboration with some voluntary clubs in the area. This is vital infrastructure for sport and business in Tipperary and it needs to go ahead. We cannot possibly allow a situation where the board has to wait for two years for a decision from An Bord Pleanála. This is shambolic. The people are there with the energy to do this project. The funding is in place and the design and plans are ready. They want to go ahead and allow people to have the enjoyment of this fabulous racecourse.
Although I cannot comment on the individual planning appeal, I can address the issue of resources at An Bord Pleanála. The Government has significantly expanded those resources. We expect that will result in faster decisions, which we all want to see. At the end of 2022, 34 additional posts were sanctioned. In April this year, the board sought agreement for a total of 59 new posts, all of which were agreed by the Department. The board submitted sanction approval requests for these posts and that approval has been given by the Department. At the end of October, 249 people were working in the board, including board members. It is intended that more than 300 people will be employed by An Bord Pleanála when all the approved posts are filled. This will represent in excess of 50% of an increase in the overall agreed staffing at the board since 2021 and we expect it will result in decisions being made in a more time-efficient manner.
Just over a year ago, I raised the crisis in the dermatology service at Sligo University Hospital, SUH, with the then Taoiseach, now Tánaiste, Deputy Micheál Martin. Back then, Dr. McKenna, the consultant dermatologist at SUH, had contacted all healthcare providers to inform them his clinics would be cancelled as there were more than 3,500 new patients waiting for their first appointments and 100 new referrals each week. According to Dr. McKenna, one year later his service has fewer nursing hours than it did 20 years ago and, after two years of trying, he cannot get an examination light installed to properly examine patients. On top of that, a senior dermatologist at Letterkenny University Hospital retired a few weeks ago and all his patients are now being referred to Dr. McKenna, who says that this will impact patient survival, especially in the context of highly time-sensitive cancers. The situation was critical a year ago. What is the Government going to do about the dermatology service now?
I do not have a detailed briefing on dermatology services at SUH, but I appreciate the issues the Deputy has raised on behalf of Dr. McKenna and the patients who are waiting. I have information on the budget increase and the staffing increases at the hospital but I will ask the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, to revert to the Deputy specifically regarding the dermatology services there.
Tomorrow will mark one month since the devastating floods that occurred in my constituency and others, including Waterford and Cork North-Central. In the Midleton area in particular, a significant number of businesses were hit. We appreciate the support that has been given by the Government and the rapid action that has been taken but difficulties are starting to be experienced by businesses that have high excesses on their insurance. In effect, they would nearly be better off not having flood insurance because they cannot access the funding. The Minister is aware of this issue. I ask him to urgently speak to Midleton Chamber of Commerce, its members and businesses locally, as well as to Departments relevant to these schemes being paid out and to the Red Cross.
I commend the community spirit in the areas that were devastated by flooding. I witnessed some of it along with the Deputy, including in Midleton. Many of the businesses have already reopened and are getting great support within the local community. The Red Cross is administering the scheme to which the Deputy referred. One of the conditions of the scheme is that only small businesses which, through not fault of their own, could not secure flood insurance are eligible. The Deputy has raised a valid and specific issue, namely, that there are people who have insurance but who cannot get cover for the first amount, whatever that may be, in terms of excess within their policies. I will raise that specific issue with the Minister, Deputy Coveney, who has line responsibility for the scheme.
The saga of Castletown House and access to it and to the State-owned lands there continues. The Minister kindly apprised us all of the ongoing dispute, the ongoing deterioration in the condition of Castletown House and the need for ongoing maintenance that cannot be carried out. However, he appears to believe that the blame lies with local protests, which were occasioned by the fact that the OPW decided to break all the rules and attempt to remove part of the wrought iron gates without planning permission, consultation or reference. I ask that urgent steps be taken to resolve this matter once and for all by simply seeking an interim injunction with a view to having discussion of the issue in the courts in order that we will all know where we have to go.
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue at Castletown House. As he will understand, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on any current or prospective legal action. The best way of resolving the issues he has highlighted is through dialogue and engagement. I encourage all the parties involved to come together and work this through.
Cashel, which is my home town, is a tourism centre. The OPW recorded slightly fewer than 400,000 people visiting it last year. That figure does not include tourists who come to Cahir, Holycross and the surrounding area. Despite the level of footfall, the Garda station in the town only opens for seven and a half hours a week. You cannot even find out on which days it opens because the schedule changes from week to week. We are being told it is going to be closed for several months while renovations take place. Is the Minister happy with a location with that kind of footfall having no Garda station? How can things be run there? What does the Government intend to do to keep Cashel safe during that closure and while those kind of opening hours are being experienced?
Opening hours are a matter for operational decision by the Garda Commissioner. What has happened in other locations is there has been engagement with the local community and public representatives, and a commitment has been given that the Garda station will be open for certain defined hours in the week in order that people who have to go there to get passport forms stamped and so on know it will definitely be open at certain times. Perhaps that is worth exploring at local level. It has been done successfully elsewhere. I hear what the Deputy is saying about the hours being irregular and the fact that the station is open sometimes but that it is not always predictable. It would be good if agreement were possible that for certain hours in the week it would definitely be open, people could access it and avail of the services being provided.
Pepper Finance recently wrote to some mortgage holder to inform them that the interest rate on their mortgages is increasing. In one case with which I am dealing, the rate is rising from 8.74% to 9.24%. That is more than double the ECB base rate. This is a disgrace, it is scandalous and it is putting people who are already experiencing enormous pressure under significant mental and financial strain. It is not right. I am asking the Minister to get in touch with C. Ryan, I. Wigglesworth, J. Farrelly, K. Desmond or A. Agafonova. They are the directors of Pepper Finance and their names are listed at the bottom of the letter to which I refer. Have they any shame? Have they any shame at doing this to people at this time, with an almost 10% annual percentage rate on people's mortgages? Do they know the mental anguish they are putting people through or the financial strain they are putting them under? I ask the Minister to intervene. He should contact those brave directors whose names are at the bottom of that letter. This is an absolute scandal and a disgrace.
I have met Pepper directly ,and my officials are meeting it again this week. Neither I nor the Central Bank have the power to intervene in respect of interest rates. The Central Bank has been clear that it does not wish to have legislative powers in this area. I have, however, reminded Pepper and other non-bank lenders of their obligations to borrowers, including full adherence to the code of conduct on mortgage arrears and the need to work through individual cases sympathetically and compassionately and come up with individual solutions. It has brought forward a new fixed rate alternative repayment arrangement. That is a temporary product which is offered when people are in difficulty with their mortgage. It is at 3%. I encourage customers of Pepper who are genuinely struggling to reach out to it and seek access to that alternative repayment arrangement. I will also be monitoring the implementation of the new code we have agreed on mortgage switching, which is designed to facilitate people in the non-bank sector switching their mortgages to the bank sector.
It will not be an option for everybody but for some people it will be.
Public transport is the main artery of our infrastructure. I represent the Kildare North commuter belt, as the Minister knows. Whether it is climate change, quality of life or avoiding gridlock, I think the many reasons for investment in public transport are self-evident.
I want to reference Dart+ West and Dart+ South West, two projects that bring the Dart line electrification out to Maynooth on one line and Hazelhatch on the other. I would say they should go just that little bit further. The Dart+ West should go to Kilcock, at least, if not Enfield. The depot is in Kilcock, so residents of Kilcock will see the trains coming in and out in the morning and evening but they cannot board them because it starts one station up, in Maynooth. In the case of Hazelhatch and Dart+ South West, it stops at Hazelhatch in the new Dart proposals. Sallins and Newbridge should be included as well. They are the stations with the bulk of the commuting population and they are being left behind.
These are once-in-a-generation projects. It is a really positive infrastructural investment but let us go one step further, or one station further in these cases, and get it right to capture the essence, otherwise it could be a lost opportunity.
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. Undoubtedly there is a need to continue to expand commuter services in the public transport space. That is why we have provided a very large capital budget within the national development plan. The Deputy has raised specifically the possible expansion of Dart+ West and South West, so I will raise that issue directly with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan.
Last Friday, in Ballyconnell in County Cavan, a woman in her 80s slipped on concrete steps. An ambulance was called, and it took an hour and 20 minutes to come. In the mean time, she was lying on cold and damp ground for that length of time. She had suffered a severe head injury and a broken arm.
What measures is the Government taking to increase personnel and resources within the National Ambulance Service, NAS, and is the recruitment of NAS staff affected by the HSE recruitment freeze? Are there plans to properly equip all ambulances to make them emergency ambulances? Are there plans to introduce a bridging programme to permit emergency medical technicians, EMTs, to upskill as paramedics? There is a shortage of paramedics, and a bridging programme did exist a number of years ago. Will private ambulances be required to assist the NAS over the winter period and if so, will they be given more time than a few days' notice and their contracts, as was the case last year?
There are a lot of questions there so I am going to ask for a written response to the Deputy. On the first issue the Deputy raised regarding the 80-year-old lady waiting an hour and 20 minutes, that is not good enough. Nobody could say that it was good enough because it certainly is not. I can only imagine the trauma which that poor person experienced, especially when she had broken bones.
There is more investment into ambulance services. The Deputy might be familiar with the new service we are running across the country as well, the pathfinder service, where instead of someone having to attend the emergency department, the ambulance will go directly to the home and try to support the person there. We will come back to the Deputy in writing.
Children at Risk Ireland, CARI, provides long-term therapeutic supports for children aged three to 18 who have been affected by child sexual abuse, and their families. It is notable that One-in-Four, which supports adult victims of child abuse, receives 75% funding from the State, such as the HSE, Tusla and the Department of Justice. At the present time, Tusla is only offering one third of the cost for 2024.
In the first half of 2023, there were 4,000 cases of suspected child physical abuse referred to An Garda Síochána and Tusla. In 2022, there were over 1,800 reports of child sex abuse. For 34 years, CARI has supplied supports for children from 3 to 18 years of age, and have only now been offered a third of the funding, while other agencies are being offered up to 75% funding. Why are children being treated any less in these cases?
I want to acknowledge the important work that CARI does. The Deputy has raised specifically the issue around funding. In August of this year, the board of CARI communicated to Tusla its financial deficit on service delivery and that without additional support of €243,000 required until the end of the year, it was its intention to cease operating and to close the CARI service. On 6 September, the Tusla commissioning team met with CARI senior management with regard to funding. CARI outlined some of the causes for financial difficulty, and its CEO accepted that its current financial operating model is not sustainable. A decision was made by the Tusla CEO to allocate an additional €200,000 in once-off funding to alleviate current financial difficulties for 2023, based on a proviso that CARI stays within its allocated budget for 2024. We will come back to the Deputy further on the specific latest issue that he has raised.
Neart Le Chéile is a community-based organisation that provides two services: Cumas, which supports children and other family members who experience addiction, and Cairdeas, which supports people who are directly in addiction themselves. These are two vital services for some of the most vulnerable people in Clondalkin. Seven workers were put on unofficial protective notice in July of this year. Some of them have over 20 years of service. The workers disclosed that there has been no communication with them since they were served this notice. The staff has been left without proper management and guidance from the board for some time. It is to the credit of the staff that Neart Le Chéile has continued to operate and provide a service to some of the most vulnerable people in my community.
I wrote to both the Minister of Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and the HSE over a week ago and I have not received a response yet. Can the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, do everything in her power, and is there any communication she can have directly with the HSE to intervene and keep this vital service open? It is disgraceful that these vulnerable people are being left in the dark.
On the situation regarding Neart Le Chéile, I am not familiar with it. If the Deputy could copy me into the correspondence, I will speak to the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, as drugs strategy comes under her remit. We will see if we can get a response for the Deputy.
Last week in Myshall, County Carlow, the superintendent and members of An Garda Síochána community policing unit met. I have concerns because the village Garda station needs refurbishment. It needs proper communication equipment, Internet and computer equipment in order for the new community Garda to be able to function properly when in the village. While I know the community Garda cannot be full-time in the village, the villagers want, as the Minister knows, to keep their Garda station open, active and a presence.
I am told that funding is not available. This is going to be a huge concern; the Minister is right. The superintendents and community policing units are going around a lot of the counties and rural areas but there has been a lot of cutbacks. I understand operational matters and I know they are nothing to do with Leinster House or the Oireachtas. However, funding is, and community policing and the lack of it is the biggest issue facing us going forward.
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue regarding Myshall in Carlow. It is the Government's policy that we want high-visibility policing, and our community gardaí do a fantastic job. We certainly want to see more of them in communities, out and about and engaging with local residents. The key for us is to increase recruitment and that is why we are, as the Deputy knows, embarking on a very significant recruitment campaign at the moment. Enough funding was provided in the current year for 1,000 additional gardaí and budget 2024 has also provided funding for more progress when it comes to recruitment. We have a growing population. We have needs across the country, including in Carlow, and I know the Garda Commissioner will take note of the points the Deputy has made.
I was recently contacted by a woman whose husband was diagnosed with dementia and Parkinson's disease. He is just 57. His condition is deteriorating and he needs a wet room and an extra bedroom to enable him to live and be cared for in his own home. They were quoted €80,000 for these works. As the Minister of State knows, the maximum grant is only €30,000. With today's prices, that would not get one a decent shed.
The housing adaptation grant for older people and people with disabilities was last reviewed in 2014. Will the Minister of State see to it that the long-overdue review is published, and will she consider raising the adaptation grants to match the current building prices? They are way below par and have become a financial barrier to people like John, preventing him from living in his own home where he is happiest and will be loved and looked after by his family and friends.
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. Every day in Ireland, there are 30 new cases of dementia. There were 30 yesterday, there will be 30 today and there will be 30 tomorrow. We are seeing 4,000 people aged under 65 living with early-onset dementia. What we want to do is support people with dementia in being able to age in their own homes, which can be very difficult.
For every person diagnosed with dementia, three people are directly affected and another half-dozen are indirectly affected within the person's family.
I agree with the Deputy about the need for appropriate accommodation to support the person to whom he referred. I certainly will raise the case with the Minister. It is an issue that comes up time and again, especially in respect of people who do not qualify for the supports available for over-66s. If the Deputy sends me on the details, we will look into the matter for him.
There was an announcement yesterday by Lakeland Dairies that it is to close some of its plants in the Border area, including in Monaghan. It is a huge blow to the constituency, and the Border area, that two plants will close in the coming years as part of a strategic plan by the business, which will lead to the loss of jobs. Lakeland Dairies is one of the significant employers in the region. Any job losses in any area, particularly in rural areas such as mine, are very impactful in a very adverse way. Will there be Government support for Lakeland Dairies as it tries to strategise for the future and take into account the needs of the farmers it represents right across the area?
I was very disappointed by the news regarding Lakeland Dairies. I assure the Deputy that the State agencies will liaise with both the company and the workers who may be affected. It should be noted that the co-operative said in its statement that there will be redeployment opportunities for some staff into vacant positions in the business. It has commenced an engagement and consultation process directly with staff and their unions. Notwithstanding that, some people will lose their jobs. It remains to be seen whether that will be done entirely on a voluntary basis and if those who want to stay in the employment of the co-operative will be given an opportunity to redeploy to another facility. The company has also indicated its intention to sell its sites in Monaghan and Banbridge after their closure. There may be employment opportunities arising from that. The key point is the redeployment opportunity and the engagement with staff. Again, I assure the Deputy that the State agencies will work with the co-operative and the workers who may be affected.