The first Topical Issue matter, which will be taken by Deputies Lisa Chambers, Ó Caoláin and Curran, concerns the roll-out of Spinraza since its approval in June. We have rarely heard as much in the House about any topic.
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Medicinal Products Availability
I mean no disrespect to the Minister of State but we expected the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, to appear in the Chamber to answer questions from me and Deputies Curran and Ó Caoláin.
He has been on notice since Tuesday when this Topical Issue matter was first submitted. It was a reserved Topical Issue matter yesterday. I live on the other side of the country and I can be here for this debate. We will raise this matter again and demand that the Minister, Deputy Harris, present himself in the Chamber to answer questions. It will be well noted by the families and children waiting that he is not here.
The availability of the drug was announced in June. To date, only three of the 25 children who need Spinraza have received it. The HSE and Minister are fobbing families off and hiding, thinking they will get away with it.
I am helping Grace O'Malley, a child who lives in my constituency. She was told in no uncertain terms that she would have the drug by the end of October and to hold on. She has now been told that she is a special case because of a spinal rod in her back, something which is no fault of her own. She will now have to wait until next year. A new team will be needed and a new service will have to be put in place, and funding will need to be applied for in order to put that service in place. What does it say to a child like Grace who has no control over her ailment that she now has to wait? When will Grace and the other children receive this drug? When will the money be made available? We need a timeline and a date.
I agree that the Minister, Deputy Harris, never presents himself to be held accountable by the House. The announcement that Spinraza was to be approved by the HSE should have afforded the families of children living with spinal muscular atrophy, SMA, hope, respite and a chance to plan for the future. Many of the families affected came to Leinster House and stated with great dignity the impact that the denial of Spinraza has had on their lives, and a number have been forced to return.
Since 11 June, the continual denial of Spinraza to many of these children, now perhaps due to administrative and resourcing reasons, is having the same devastating impact on these children and their families. The headline of 11 June is not the endgame. If we are to go on the suggested data that only a small number of children currently have access to Spinraza, quite clearly the Government is failing children with SMA. I want a clear answer as to the number of children currently in receipt of Spinraza and why it is the case that not all of those who are entitled to the opportunity to see if the drug will make a difference in their lives are currently receiving it.
Sam and Glen are two boys who live in Rathcoole and Clondalkin. They and their families were delighted and full of hope last summer when it was agreed that Spinraza would be made available to them. They had the realistic expectation that the drug would be administered to them over the summer holidays, but it was not. All hope has been withdrawn from them. There is no date for when it will be made available to them and they are very upset. They were thrown a lifeline which has now been taken away.
A month ago I asked the Minister how many children had received the drug and at that point in time none had. I understand that perhaps three children have now received it. We have raised this issue in the House, and have been fobbed off and told it is a complex condition and so forth. All of those facts were known last summer when the decision was made to make the drug available. The children were identified last summer; it is not as though new children have appeared.
The reality is that somewhere along the way there is a disconnect between the health service which is administering the drug and the decision made by the Government which we all welcomed. We want to know how many children are currently in receipt of the drug. When will all of the remaining children start on the drug? We do not want to be fobbed off with references to this being a complex issue and so forth. We all know that. We want the decision of the House and Government to be implemented immediately.
I thank Deputies Chambers, Ó Caoláin and Curran for raising this important issue. As far as I am concerned, I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Harris, who sends his apologies. I will not fob anybody off.
I fully recognise that spinal muscular atrophy places considerable strain on SMA sufferers and that families are anxious to see their children who suffer from this debilitating and painful condition begin treated with this medicine. In June 2019, following a thorough review process and engagement with the manufacturer, the HSE leadership team approved access to the drug Spinraza for children with SMA types I, Il and Ill on an exceptional and individualised basis.
The actual patient assessment and approval process is the means for determining access on an individual case by case basis to this complex and expensive treatment. Since July, 11 children have been approved for Spinraza treatment in Temple Street Hospital. Application for approval is based on clearly defined criteria and clinical guidelines being followed in each case.
Spinraza is injected during a procedure known as lumbar puncture. The actual delivery of this drug to approved patients in a safe and sustainable way requires very specific and quite complex service arrangements to be put in place. There are two categories of patients with regard to the administration of Spinraza. For category l, where the administration of Spinraza is deemed not too technically difficult, a consultant paediatric neurologist and lead clinician need access to the day ward as administration is performed under local anaesthetic. Each of these patients will also require a physiotherapy assessment pre-administration and recovery time in the day ward.
Category II are more complex patients who have already undergone spinal fusion surgery and insertion of spinal rods, which makes the administering of Spinraza potentially more complex. For these patients, the delivery of Spinraza will require specialist care to include input by an anaesthetist and an interventional radiologist with associated nursing and the availability of capacity in the paediatric intensive care unit.
It will be appreciated, therefore, that a considerable amount of service planning and assessment of patients at an individual level is required in order for treatment with Spinraza to be undertaken. The HSE has confirmed that the provision of auxiliary services to facilitate the administration of Spinraza to these patients is currently being worked on.
The Minister, Deputy Harris, has been advised by the HSE that four children are now receiving Spinraza, three of whom were successfully started on Spinraza treatment in Temple Street on 7 November. The HSE has also confirmed that Children's Health Ireland, CHI, is in discussions with colleagues across the three children's hospitals in Crumlin, Temple Street and Tallaght with regard to arranging a schedule so that administration of Spinraza can be performed for approved patients. As part of this process, CHI is engaging on an individual basis with the families involved regarding each child's treatment plan.
Furthermore, the HSE has indicated that a meeting has now been scheduled between CHI and the SMA Ireland advocacy group at the end of November to discuss arrangements for the delivery of Spinraza. The Minister, Deputy Harris, has asked to be kept updated on any further developments. I will bring any of the concerns raised to date back to the Minister immediately.
With all due respect, why is the Minister of State here to tell us what the Minister, Deputy Harris, has been advised? Surely he should be here to tell us what he has been advised.
The suggestion that administering the drug requires complex service arrangements is not new. I was told this many months ago by the children waiting for this drug, who knew all of this in advance. We knew about this before June. We have been told today, following approval of the drug last June, that the HSE is currently working on the facilities to administer the drug. What comfort and reassurance does that give to any child waiting on the drug? Three of the four children receiving this drug only started on it this month.
Why was the drug approved to great fanfare last June? It seems that the Minister, Deputy Harris, is quite keen to get the stress and pressure off his back. He will say whatever he needs to get out of a sticky situation. Making announcements of that nature, getting people's hopes up and then not delivering on them is cruel.
We in the House want to know when the Minister became aware that a new service and team would be required to administer this drug. When will the budget be made available to administer this drug? When will the remaining children receive Spinraza? We want a date and timeline, not more broken and empty promises and no delivery.
With respect, after the passage of so many months we are facing into Christmas and for the greater number of these families there has been no real delivery.
I noted from the reply that the Minister of State has read into the record that 11 children have been approved. He went on to clarify that only four have actually been lined-up, and perhaps even only three are currently in receipt of the drug. There is an uncertainty in regard to this.
I wish to put on record that I understand and appreciate, as the families do, the wonderful trojan work that Dr. Declan O'Rourke, the prescribing specialist doctor for spinal muscular atrophy, SMA, children at Temple Street Children's University Hospital, is doing. He and the hospital are denied the infrastructure and support in order to carry out a much greater throughput of those at least 11 children initially. We need to see all the children given the opportunity for trial to see how Spinraza will work for them. Pray God it will make a difference for them all. That would be the hope of all of us, as it would be of the families.
I ask the Minister of State to reflect the frustration and vexation of the Members of this House to the Minister for Health for the failure to move this forward with the speed that it requires and his failure once again to be accountable to this House on this particular important matter.
The Minister of State and I go back a long way but this is an appalling answer; it really and truly is. I know he is delivering it for the Minister for Health and that it is not his role, but this is absolutely shocking. These parents had the realistic expectation that within a number of months of having the drug approved, their children would be in receipt of it. This is a degenerative condition. Each child today is in a poorer condition than they were last summer. This drug should have been administered by now. The Minister of State set out the two scenarios for the two types and he indicated for category 1 that it required access to a day ward. Surely to God in this country, in this day and age, we can have access to a day ward to administer this drug to these children.
Even the more complex cases should have been dealt with by now. I note that the Minister of State has made a strong point of saying that three children were treated on 7 November. I wonder if we had not brought to the floor of this House back in October that no child to October had received the treatment, would any children be receiving it now. We are not satisfied with this answer.
The Minister of State can tell the Minister that Members of this House and colleagues will continue to raise this issue until we get a straight answer. What we want to know, without talking about the complexity of the case because this was all known back in June, is when will all of those children receive their initial doses of this drug, Spinraza. Are there other issues going on behind the scenes that we are not aware of? Is the budget in place or is the Department trying to defer it until next year? Honest to God, the families and the children, in particular, are aware that their condition is deteriorating. We have to do better for their expectations and hopes. I hope that the Minister of State's supplementary answer is more positive, detailed and specific because we will bring this issue back to the House.
First, there is nothing else going on-----
Yes, there is nothing going on.
-----behind the scenes. As far as I am concerned I fully recognise this is a very important time for patients, their families and carers.
As to the answer to the question, 11 children have been approved for Spinraza treatment in Temple Street Children's University Hospital and four patients have received the treatment of the medicine to date. Three of these started on 7 November at Temple Street - this is the key sentence - but there is no definitive timeline for the schedule of treatment for more complex cases. What I am saying is that the complexity of this treatment requires appropriate service arrangements to be put in place in Temple Street Hospital to ensure that the treatment and delivery of this medicine is conducted in a safe and sustainable way, appropriate to the standard of care that has been developed for the particular treatment. While I hope that access to this treatment will be provided shortly for all concerned, it is important to note that I or the Minister, Deputy Harris, have no role in relation to how clinicians manage the care of individual patients. All decisions are entirely a matter for the treating clinician, in line with the patient safety protocols and guidelines, which are currently being developed by the HSE to administer Spinraza. I will of course bring the issues raised by the Deputies today back to the Minister, Deputy Harris.
The second important item is from Deputy-----
On a point of order, a Cheann Comhairle, is the Minister required even to explain as to why somebody is here to deputise for him or are Members of this House supposed to just accept when somebody just does not bother to turn up? We are all here, is that-----
I will explain. It is completely appropriate for a Minister to delegate a Minister of State from his or her own Department to take a Topical Issue matter. There is nothing unusual about that. If Deputies are unhappy, they can register a complaint with me on the answer, or lack of-----
The lack of an answer.
-----availability of the Minister and we will attempt to assist.
As the Minister is aware, the Environmental Protection Agency published its urban wastewater treatment report for 2018 earlier this week. As with its predecessor reports in 2017 and 2016, it makes for very depressing reading. While there has been a marginal level of improvement in both the number and volume of untreated wastewater that is going into our rivers, lakes and seas, progress is so slow that one can see the concern of the Environmental Protection Agency in the report escalating with each year. It is telling us that the number of priority areas where treatment is needed is now 120. Yes, it is down from 132, but is still very significant. It is telling us that improvements are needed at these 120 areas to eliminate raw sewage, prevent water pollution, protect freshwater pearl mussels, bathing water, shellfish waters, but crucially, to meet EU standards.
More alarming, it is telling us that sewage for the equivalent to 77,000 people in 36 towns and villages is released into the environment every day without treatment. In fact, half of this is from a very small number of larger wastewater treatment plants which are not currently receiving the level of attention that they require. The Environmental Protection Agency stresses that Irish Water is taking: " too long to complete some of the improvements necessary to protect the environment." Delays mean that 13 areas will continue releasing raw sewage after 2021, the date that has been agreed if I understand this correctly by Government with the European Commission to ensure both compliance with the urban wastewater directive but also to avoid very substantial fines for failure to address those issues. The Environmental Protection Agency is urging Irish Water - this is relevant to the Minister in his responsibility - first of all to target resources to resolve environmental issues at the 120 priority areas, which the EPA itself is indicating are at serious risk of falling foul of the urban waste water treatment directive, but crucially to increase the pace of upgrades of deficient wastewater treatment systems to prevent pollution, protect public health and avoid financial penalties.
The Minister and myself have spoken about this at some length before. It is important to remind people that we have been subject to a very protracted enforcement proceeding from the European Commission dating back to 2013. The origin of that was very substantial cuts to capital funding in the upgrading of wastewater treatment plants in the three years leading up to that, namely, 2011, 2012, and 2013. While to date we have avoided significant fines from the European Commission, that is subject to us meeting the targets and the agreed upgrades that have been set out.
Every year we get the report from the Environmental Protection Agency. While it shows a little bit of progress, it also shows very significant levels of slippage in the upgrades that are so urgently needed. Can the Minister give the House some assurance that those key requirements of the Environmental Protection Agency, both to target the resources and to increase the pace of the upgrades, is going to happen? Can he tell us is what engagement he has had or intends to have with Irish Water and other relevant local authorities on foot of these findings from the Environment Protection Agency? Does he also share the concern that many of us have on this side of the House that we could end up having very significant fines as result of failure to meet some of the crucial 2021 targets for bringing these now 26 agglomerations up to the level that is required legally under the urban wastewater directive?
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and for providing an opportunity to give an overview of the Environmental Protection Agency's latest report, Urban Wastewater Treatment in 2018, which was published yesterday. The EPA issues this report on wastewater each year, as referred to by the Deputy, and it is an important piece of work. The EPA plainly sets out the significant issues in our wastewater sector. Many of these issues are long-standing. Without Irish Water acting to address these issues we would be in a worse situation.
The EPA reports on its assessment of monitoring results from cities, towns and urban communities as reported to the EPA by Irish Water and on enforcement activities carried out by the EPA during 2018.
I welcome the elements of this report that show Irish Water is making progress in many areas. The EPA has found the number of priority urban areas, that is, the areas where wastewater treatment most needs to improve, is down from 132 in 2017 to 120 in 2018, to which the Deputy referred.
In 2016, the EPA reported 44 towns and villages were discharging raw sewage — this is an unacceptable legacy of past underinvestment. However, by 2018 this has now reduced to 36. The majority of the remaining areas will have appropriate treatment by 2021.
As the EPA has pointed out, however, much more needs to be done. Wastewater is one of the main threats to the quality of our rivers, lakes and estuaries and it contributed to poor quality bathing water at three beaches in 2018, although the number was down from six the previous year.
Ireland's shortcomings in this area are not a surprise. In March, the Court of Justice of the European Union found that Ireland was in breach of the wastewater treatment directive. The judgment listed specifically 28 towns and villages that need upgrades. The EPA report shows that out of the 169 large urban areas in Ireland, 21 areas failed to comply with the EU's legally binding standards for the treatment of urban wastewater in 2018.
As I stated at the outset, Irish Water is now addressing these issues. In the period 2018 to 2024, Irish Water intends to carry out upgrades and improvements at these urban wastewater treatment plants to help ensure that treatment levels and capacity comply with the requirements of the urban waste water treatment directive.
In more general terms, our River Basin Management Plan 2018-2021 outlines what Ireland is doing to protect and improve all of our waters. Among a broad suite of measures, the plan sets out significant investment by Irish Water in urban wastewater projects. In support of this, the Government has approved the Irish Water Strategic Funding Plan 2019-2024, comprising of a €6.1 billion investment in infrastructure and assets and €4.9 billion in operating costs. In 2018, Irish Water invested €230 million in wastewater infrastructure. Further to this, Irish Water has stated that its investment in wastewater infrastructure is to increase to almost €400 million in 2020, as the amount invested in upgrading wastewater infrastructure matches the investment in drinking water for the first time. This will make a significant contribution to addressing Ireland's needs and bringing us into compliance with the urban wastewater directive.
I thank the Minister for the reply.
It is important to acknowledge in the figures in the report that while there has been progress, if one scratches beneath the surface it shows that although a number of urban areas are coming off the list of those in breach of the urban wastewater directive and therefore subject to the European Commission's legal action, the volume of the waste that is going untreated into our rivers, lakes and seas is not reducing by the same percentage. That means that some of the large polluting areas continue to pollute. That is why that figure of sewage from the equivalent of 77,000 people in 36 towns and villages being released is so important.
I accept that the level of capital investment in upgrading these wastewater treatment plants has increased significantly, albeit from a low base. In the previous Fine Gael-Labour Administration, at one point it fell as low as €150 million. I welcome the fact that it potentially will reach €400 million in 2020.
I will ask the Minister two questions. Given that the 2021 target is so important, to ensure we are fully compliant with the EU urban wastewater directive and do not start to receive fines, will the Minister and his Department's engagement with Irish Water escalate quarter on quarter the closer we get to that to ensure the slippage we have seen in some of the upgrade timelines does not continue? Can the Minister also give me an indication that if further funds or other interventions are required, whether at a planning or a project development stage, he will work constructively with both Irish Water and the local authorities to ensure that by 2021, we will have the level of upgrades of these facilities that is required and that the aforementioned figure of the raw sewage of 77,000 people spewing into rivers, lakes and shores on a daily basis is not only reduced but, in fact, eradicated as EU law requires us to do?
I thank Deputy Ó Broin for the follow-up questions. I will make a couple of points and will come back to his specific questions in a moment.
Irish Water has achieved a 44% reduction in the amount of untreated and inadequately treated wastewater being discharged to our rivers, lakes and seas since it was established in 2014. It is doing good work in this regard. If we look at the 44 problem areas that we have been talking about, 14 of those areas already have had the works completed, 18 are under construction and we intend to get 12 through planning permission in 2020.
Of course, when the EPA talks about delays, it is fair to point out that not all delays are the fault of Irish Water or because something has gone wrong at that end. There are elements, such as the planning process, which it cannot control in terms of timelines etc. It cannot address every delay but it is trying to expedite this.
I cannot write a blank cheque in terms of future funding needs that might arise out of matters that have not been considered but it is good to note the political support that we have here. On a related point, yesterday we saw planning permission come through for the greater Dublin drainage scheme. It is a significant investment to treat wastewater. Then, regrettably, we saw the housing and water spokesperson for Fianna Fáil come out against that project. On the same day that the EPA landed this report about how wastewater is flowing into our environment and into oceans untreated and how we need to invest in it, and that we get planning permission for a much-needed investment in treating our wastewater, unfortunately, the Fianna Fáil spokesperson for water came out against it. My fear is that it is because of local constituency concerns and not in the national interest. I have not had a chance to hear the Deputy clarify that it is not a local concern. We need to be clear here as a body politic. As the Oireachtas, we must invest in wastewater treatment. We must have new plants funded, planned for, designed and come into operation and we need to make sure there is the political will and courage to do that, even though it might rub up against some local interests or local concerns. We cannot let them stand in the way of protecting the environment but also our precious water resource.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for taking this important Topical Issue.
It is good to see a Donegal man interested in north County Dublin.
We are expanding our interests.
I was confused myself.
We have to look and see what other parts of the country are doing as well to see whether they are keeping up to speed with us.
SK biotek Ireland, based in Swords, County Dublin, has laid off approximately 150 staff. This is a serious situation. Only a year ago the company made an agreement that it would guarantee the terms and conditions of the staff for five years and yet here it is now laying off staff. The workers are left with no option but to strike to highlight their issues of concern.
The company refuses to attend the Workplace Relations Committee unless the staff agree to its preconditions on talking to them. This is viewed by staff as unreasonable and coercive, and the company's response is to lay off the employees directly involved in manufacturing. I believe that the staff members are right and we should not tolerate any employer trying to dictate the terms of a negotiation. I believe the Minister should not either, and that the Government should protect their rights. This is a complete breach of workplace relations in this country and the Minister needs to act now to ensure that the company respects its workforce and the office of the State, that is, the Workplace Relations Commission.
We have even seen a letter in recent days sent by the company informing workers that if they participate in a picket on the plant, they are making themselves unavailable for work and will not be entitled to jobseeker's benefit. Now the company is the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection as well, advising workers on what is happening there. The Government cannot allow this to continue.
The Government must take a stance in terms of protecting workers' rights and protecting the arms of the State charged with protecting the rights of those workers. It has to get involved in this situation and get SK biotek to come to the table without any preconditions.
As has been said, over 150 workers at north Dublin pharmaceutical plant face being put on unpaid leave from today. Shift workers at SK biotek in Swords will be put on protective notice.
Connect trade union shop steward Ms Ruth Russell has said that SK biotek bought the plant from Bristol-Myers Squibb and signed an agreement protecting staff terms and conditions of employment. This transfer of undertakings, protection of employment, TUPE, agreement is there to protect workers' pay and conditions for a period. That agreement was to last up to 2022. Within six months, this company, SK biotek, issued a 22-page document detailing a raft of changes which, Ms Russell claims, the company has refused to negotiate. SIPTU members are also involved in that. There are 94 SIPTU members and the remainder of the 150 are Connect members. They rightly have taken industrial action.
This is outside the bounds of the labour laws in this country.
The TUPE regulation is a recognised part of legislation in this country, but the company is railroading and threatening the workers. Deputy Pringle referred to the letter which states:
While colleagues on Lay Off may have entitlement to Job Seekers Benefit you should also note that colleagues involved in Picketing due to Industrial Action have no entitlement to same. In addition to this, I must advise that should any colleague engage in Picketing for any period of the duration of Lay Off this also will disqualify them from Job Seekers Benefit. To receive Job Seekers Benefit colleagues must be readily available for work.
This has been used against workers previously.
This is a multinational company that is ignoring the industrial relations machinery in place and the Government has a policy of bringing such companies into the country. It is trying to put the workers under pressure, even before they go to the WRC by making them accept onerous terms. The Government must step in and instruct multinational companies that they cannot treat workers in this country in that way.
I am replying on behalf of the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, who cannot attend, for which she apologises. Naturally, she is very much aware of the regrettable ongoing issue at SK Biotek in Swords. I acknowledge that workplace disputes are never welcome news for workers, employers and the economy. That is why we hope this issue can be resolved as soon as possible.
As to how it has arisen, the Minister understands the company has placed a number of its employees on protective notice. This has resulted in the temporary laying off of up to 142 staff. Not all of the firm's workers, however, have been similarly affected. The company's decision followed a dispute between management and staff at the plant which had resulted in industrial action being taken in recent weeks. The company has stated its core manufacturing operations had to be closed down on account of the industrial action. I understand the company has written formally to the trade unions involved and asked that it re-engage with the firm through the Workplace Relations Commission. The Deputies have a different version, but it is something we can check out.
Clearly, it is in the interests of both sides that the dispute does not continue. As matters stand, the facility is not operating as normal and employees are temporarily out of work. Therefore, I urge both parties to engage meaningfully with each another and through the industrial relations machinery of the State in an effort to find a solution. I am also aware of how significant an employer the company is in the north Dublin area, with 370 people normally working at its facility in Swords. To be clear in responding to Deputy Joan Collins, we support all of those involved in job creation, both in indigenous companies of all sizes and multinational companies that locate here. We have a very pro-jobs environment, as well as a pro-employee environment. There is strong legislation in place to support it.
As this is a key industry with valuable jobs, it is important that the issue be resolved. Industrial relations disputes such as the one we are discussing are not easy to resolve. They can weaken trust between the workforce and management and cause great anxiety and concern for workers and their families. Clearly, they do not contribute to the positive enterprise environment we are trying to create in this country. The reality is that both workers and employers have rights and responsibilities that must be respected. I hope balance can be restored as soon as possible. That is why the Government will continue to urge both sides to the dispute to enter into constructive discussions as soon as possible. It is in the interests of all those involved to draw a line under the dispute which I hope can be achieved very soon by engaging in discussions through the industrial relations machinery of the State which does a good job in such situations. That is the job it was set up to do.
I thank the Minister of State for his response and appreciate that the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, cannot be present, which is fair enough. However, it is vital that the Government take a proactive role in dealing with this dispute. None of us wants to see the jobs lost or workers out on strike. However, the company has taken a very negative position, of which we have proof. It appears from the Minister of State's response that the Department might be getting only one side of the story. We must be proactive and state the company must be willing to offer to engage in negotiations without preconditions. The trade unions involved do not want there to be any precondition as that is the only way the dispute will be resolved. The Government must play its part in that regard and demand that both sides to the dispute go to the Workplace Relations Commission to negotiate without preconditions. That is where the negotiations can take place.
I echo what Deputy Pringle said. Some of the workers have been working at the plant for over 30 years. They have invested their lives in the companies that have operated at it. SK Biotek commenced operations at the plant in December 2017 and gave a commitment to bring forward a contract of five years under the transfer of undertakings legislation. That is important legislation in protecting workers' rights. It was used when workers transferred from the local authorities to private companies providing bin collection and other services. Multinational companies should be told specifically that they must abide by the undertakings given. They cannot come back with a new set of onerous conditions after six months and tell the workers that they must accept them before going to the WRC. It is welcome that the company has written to the trade unions and that they have stated they do not want preconditions. I hope SK Biotek will also do the same and that the matter will be resolved. Nobody wants to be outside the gates six weeks before Christmas or after being employed for 30 years in the same manufacturing company.
I thank both Deputies for their intervention by raising this issue. With reference to the TUPE regulation and the obligations in that regard, it is not for me to adjudicate on how the dispute should be resolved. We have apparatus in place to do just that. To be clear, regulations are in place and they are the same for all employers, be they multinational companies or otherwise. We do not differentiate in employment law between multinational and local smaller companies. All employers have responsibilities and there is a legal apparatus in place to ensure they are fulfilled. That legal apparatus does a good job. It is not for a Minister or a politician to step in and make that judgment call. The apparatus in place is successful and the legislation is very strong. We need to get it going.
I share the Deputies' concerns about the situation at the company. It is always a source of regret for me and the Minister to see people out of work, either temporarily or otherwise and certainly in the run-up to Christmas in six weeks' time, but it is not for the Minister or the Government to adjudicate on the source of the dispute between the employees and company management. Undoubtedly, there are different versions. I am not saying there is only one. We do not have all of the facts and I do not believe any of us does. Respective Governments have worked hard over the decades to put in place a strong and robust industrial relations framework in the State which is supported by all Members of the House. That framework is in place to deal with these regrettable disputes. It is, therefore, the proper forum in which to address substantial difficulties such as those that have arisen in this case.
We should be as optimistic as possible. The Minister and I are not aware of any reason the dispute cannot be resolved. I believe that is true for the two Deputies also. The company has a strong presence in Ireland. The employees value their jobs and, as Deputy Joan Collins said, have a long history of working at that plant under different ownership for 20 to 30 years. They are valuable jobs. Therefore, I urge both sides to the dispute to engage constructively together to have the difficulties resolved in order that workers can return to work and the facility can operate normally once more. Many others are dependent on it.
I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House to deal with this issue. I am a little disappointed that the Minister is not present because when this Dáil came together, the importance of having line Ministers present to deal with Topical Issues was stressed.
A report was produced by National Traveller MABS which examined in detail the fuel poverty experienced by those living in mobile homes, trailers and caravans. The report is very readable and makes concise and implementable suggestions and recommendations. We must put the matter in context. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the interest he has shown in the Traveller community by facilitating the establishment of an all-party committee to examine Traveller issues. The one fact that jumps out every day is that Travellers die at a lot younger age than the rest of us. They suffer far worse health outcomes. When one drills down, one continually finds that it all comes down to basic items such as accommodation. It is not the case that they have less access to doctors. In fact, many Travellers go to the doctor much more frequently than members of the settled community. When seeking to address their quality of life and health issues and mortality rates, one must always look at the issue of accommodation.
We will not solve these accommodation issues overnight and get good standard accommodation for all Travellers. In Galway, one site did not have planning permission even though it had been a city council halting site for the previous six or seven years. However, the council did not do what it was obliged to and has been told what to do by An Bord Pleanála, which is to come up with proper accommodation that would be suitable for the Travellers all the time. There is no fault attached to the Travellers in that case as they were put there by the city council.
There are not many recommendations. One is that we should have either a rent-to-buy or a rental scheme for quality accommodation, caravans or mobile homes. That could be done easily as they are a very small community and the number who live in caravans and trailers is a small percentage of that. It would not be difficult if the will was there. The second is a simple recommendation, namely that the fuel allowance would be higher than the standard rate of €22.50 for those living in caravans or trailers. The cost would not have much of an effect on the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection budget but it would make a major difference to those living in trailers, caravans or mobile homes. The next proposal relates to something I find difficult to understand. Where two caravans are in the same bay, there is only one fuel allowance payment between the two families. That could be sorted tomorrow and that would not break the Department's budget. One would not measure it in the spending of that Department. The final proposal relates to something that has deteriorated in the past seven or eight years, namely access to discretionary payments where there are particular health issues and where now there is an eight-page form to be filled following which there is no discretion. The applicant is expected to produce so many receipts and so much documentation that it can be very difficult, particularly for people with literacy issues to access the payment. I hope that the Minister of State will inform us that the Department has considered this and it will now deal with the report that Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív did not produce but that was done by MABS Travellers.
I am taking this question on behalf of the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty.
In July, MABS Travellers published a report addressing energy poverty among Travellers living in mobile homes and trailers. This report, which was based on analysis of 65 households last autumn, found that 77% of Travellers who live in mobile homes are in energy poverty and spend between five and six times more on energy than the average household. The report contains recommendations which relate to a number of Departments.
The Minister has asked her officials to examine the recommendations in the report specifically in regard to the fuel allowance scheme. This scheme is intended to assist low-income households with their energy costs. It is not intended to meet those costs in full. Since the analysis contained in the report was completed, the Minister announced as part of budget 2019 an extension of the fuel allowance scheme by one week, which came into effect in 2019.
It is currently a payment of €22.50 per week for 28 weeks, a total of €630, from October to April, paid to more than 372,000 low-income households, at an estimated cost of €240 million in 2019. In budget 2020, the Minister increased the fuel allowance payment by €2 to €24.50 per week. This is an increase of just under 9% and will increase the annual fuel allowance rate from €630 to €686, that is, a €56 yearly increase, which is due to take effect from January 2020.
On the recommendation that fuel allowance be paid to families sharing single-use bays, the Minister stresses that fuel allowance can only be paid when the household is on an approved site, publicly or privately owned, with planning permission for the caravan or mobile home. However, where someone lives in a residence, which is without planning permission such as in the case where an additional mobile home or caravan is placed on a bay designed for single use, these additional places of residence are not eligible for fuel allowance.
The Department also pays an electricity or gas allowance under the household benefits scheme at an estimated cost of €188 million in 2019 and this can provide support to eligible Traveller families. In addition to the fuel allowance and the household benefits scheme, the Department provides supports under the supplementary welfare allowance, SWA, scheme, which includes a heating supplement. This supplement may be paid to a person who lives alone or only with a qualified adult or children and who has exceptional heating needs due to ill health or infirmity. There is no standard rate for a heating supplement and each payment is awarded taking into account the individual circumstances of the case, therefore, providing for flexibility in its administration. There are currently some 1,240 recipients of this payment.
Finally, the exceptional needs payments, ENPs, may be made to help meet an essential, once-off cost, which a person is unable to meet from their own resources, and this may include exceptional heating costs. In 2018, over 2,400 ENPs at a cost of almost €631,000 were made under the ENP category of heating. To date in 2019, more than 1,200 such payments were made at a cost of €354,000. The Minister advises any persons who are unable to meet their heating costs to contact the Department's community welfare service at their local Intreo centre for assistance.
While the Department provides a range of income supports that are available to individuals to offset the cost of energy the Minister also notes that the report found that only 14% of mobile homes are insulated. What is required, therefore, to address energy poverty among Travellers on a sustainable basis are the report's recommendations relating to the need for a State-financed rental or rent-to-buy scheme to provide good quality mobile accommodation for Travellers more widely accessible.
Mair a chapaill agus gheobhair féar. The Minister of State is telling us to wait for this great new scheme the Government will introduce whereby everybody will have an absolutely fantastic mobile home, trailer or caravan but that, in the meantime, people should freeze. I do not know if any Minister has ever stayed in a mobile home in the winter. It might be fine for someone in Ballybunion for the summer, but a mobile home is very hard to heat in the winter.
The reality is that it takes an awful lot of time in this State to make simple decisions. I would not mind if there were a significant number of consequences or significant costs involved. The Department's budget is approximately €20 billion per year. It is very hard for people to get their heads around that figure but I will put it in simple terms. It is equivalent to worrying about 50 cent if one has €20,000 in one's pocket. The proportion is the same. Doubling the payment to those living in trailers and mobile homes would cost approximately €500,000, which is not a large sum out of a budget of €20,000 million.
I was fascinated by what the Minister of State said about planning permission. Perhaps in his response, he will address whether, if the local authority does not have planning permission, it disqualifies the residents erecting the halting site from getting the fuel allowance. What justification could the Department have for such a decision?
The reality is that this issue has just been put on the long finger. We seem to spend more time studying the obvious than making decisions. As I said, there will be no big knock-on effect. The Government is just trying to avoid somebody saying Travellers got something. My answer to that is that the Government should look at all the statistics, which point to the fact that there are a lot of things in life Travellers do not have.
I accept the point on Traveller accommodation and health and mortality issues. Nobody is disputing those points and I accept that we must respond to them. In my response on behalf of the Minister, I stated the exceptional needs payments and the option of contacting the local Intreo office could deal with heating cost issues. I will bring the local authority planning permission matter to the attention of the appropriate Minister as there is a problem that we can see very clearly.
The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is currently considering the recommendations made by the expert group on Traveller accommodation with a view to implementing appropriate actions and policies to improve the delivery of Traveller accommodation nationally and help to ensure full use is made of the increasing level of funding available for addressing investment in Traveller accommodation. The budget is there and it needs to be rolled out. We will need support for that plan as well.