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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 15 Jul 2020

Vol. 995 No. 1

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Some 38 Deputies have indicated, eight of them having been carried forward from yesterday. I plead with Members to stick to the one-minute time limit. I call Deputy McDonald.

The ban on evictions, notices to quit and rent increases expires on Monday next. As the Taoiseach will be aware, tens of thousands of renters who have lost income due to Covid-19 are protected by this ban and without it, they will be immediately at risk of eviction or perhaps homelessness. There were worrying reports in last weekend's papers that the Taoiseach is being advised not to extend the ban. I remind him that during the general election when we in Sinn Féin spoke about a rent freeze and applying protections for those renters, we were told it could not be done. In fact, many went so far as to say that to do so would be unconstitutional, yet those protections were then introduced, albeit in the context of a public health emergency. Will the Taoiseach clarify the Government's position? I ask him to commit to extending these protections, not just to October but to year's end, and to also commit to introducing a rent arrears debt resolution scheme, including the option of partial or full rent write-downs.

There was no Covid-19 during the general election and the assertions made then bore no relationship to what subsequently happened. The eviction ban and freeze on rent increases was grounded in the emergency public health legislation arising out of Covid-19. There are issues around that but the Government is examining them. We are conscious that it has helped public health by preventing homelessness and reducing homelessness, evictions and so on, and that that trend would continue. There has been a relaxation of emergency measures under the roadmap but the Government is giving this very detailed scrutiny right now and we will consider it at Government meetings over the coming weeks.

The programme for Government is virtually silent on the question of workers' rights and there can be no even or fair recovery in the absence of a focus on collective bargaining and decent pay and wages. I acknowledge the welcome commitment in the programme to a living wage, but there is no timeline of any substance. What is required is for the riding instructions of the Low Pay Commission to be changed in legislation to give it a legal target to transform the national minimum wage rate to a living wage over the next period. In the absence of such a move, the aspiration to convert the minimum wage to a living wage will remain just that - a mere aspiration. Does the Taoiseach have any plans to amend the National Minimum Wage Act 2000 to give the Low Pay Commission a legal timeframe within which to work to deliver a living wage for the workers of this country? Will he confirm that the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation has received the annual report from the commission with recommendations on the rate of the national minimum wage for 2021? When will Cabinet consider that report, and will the Government accept the recommendation that is about to be lodged?

I thank the Deputy for his question. As an overall policy position, I am establishing a new social dialogue unit within my Department and I would like to explore the issues to which the Deputy has referred such as collective bargaining and so on with the various stakeholders in that regard.

I will check with the Tánaiste about receipt of the Low Pay Commission report. The position in recent years has been to adhere to the recommendations of the commission. As regards the Deputy's specific point about whether the commission would be tasked with transforming the minimum wage, that has not specifically been committed to yet. It is an interesting idea and I am open to engaging with the Deputy, as I am sure the Tánaiste will be, about constructive progress we can make on workers' rights in general.

The programme for Government seeks to accelerate the roll-out of the national broadband plan, NBP. Dependable broadband is essential to support rural communities, foster businesses in our towns and villages and enable people to work from home and students to learn online. Every day, I am contacted by people who are extremely frustrated at their appalling Internet access. Throughout lockdown, people resorted to working from church car parks in their cars. Some teachers could not access the Internet at home to teach remotely. The list goes on. What assurances can the Taoiseach give the people of west Cork and rural Ireland that we will have dependable broadband soon?

The programme for Government has raised the prospect of moving to try to accelerate the national broadband plan. That is, however, something that must be followed through in some detail regarding engagement with the company concerning what is possible. I accept fully the point made by the Deputy regarding the poor quality of broadband in rural Ireland being a real inhibitor of economic rejuvenation and development.

As I said to one of the Deputy's colleagues yesterday, Skibbereen is a good example of what can happen when a significant hub and connectivity is developed. That is something I am conscious of and I take the Deputy's point. We will do whatever we possibly can to accelerate the national broadband plan and to enable people to engage in a range of activities, social, educational and economic, in rural Ireland.

Page 119 of the programme for Government contains a promise for political reform. That promise appears, at the very least, a little aspirational now. I have a simple question for the Taoiseach. If The Sunday Times had not published the story about the Garda report last Sunday, is it not the case that the Taoiseach would not have asked Deputy Cowen to answer questions in the Dáil? Is it also not the case that the Taoiseach was relying on legal threats to gag the media and that he had agreed previously with Deputy Cowen that he would not tell the Dáil about the Garda report because the Taoiseach thought that those legal threats would prevent the media from publishing?

First, the Deputy made a statement earlier that was completely wrong and untrue. I did not collude with anybody regarding any legal action or any legal initiative. I respectfully suggest that the Deputy should not be making such loose allegations and assertions that are wholly without foundation.

I did not say that.

It comes easy to the Deputy's lips to throw innuendoes and accusations around the place.

Answer the question.

The Deputy is, however, out of order. Deputy Cowen took his own initiative regarding legal action to protect his name and reputation, as he saw it, and in respect of ascertaining his own personal data. I saw the PULSE detail yesterday morning for the first time and I also had a lengthy discussion with Deputy Cowen the evening before. I have already dealt with this issue in that respect.

My record in this House, since the day I was elected and since the time I have held many Ministries, has been about accountability to the House. I never held back and I have no issue regarding holding back from the House. Deputy Cowen, for his own reason, to which he is entitled, had a different perspective on the matter regarding pursuing his entitlements and rights as he saw it. That is particularly the case regarding the release of his data. The Deputy should not be accusing me of colluding in some sort of plot to suppress that-----

The Sunday Times-----

That is the position.

Deputy Murphy, please. The Deputy has had his question. I call Deputy Naughten.

The last Government and this Government committed to the reform of the nursing home fair deal legislation. It has been promised for the last four years to prohibit the forced sale of farms and businesses across the country of older people resident in nursing homes and to remove the effective ban on the option for older people of leasing out up to 9,000 vacant homes. At present, those people are being charged three times under the fair deal rules if they lease a house out, rather than just once if they leave it vacant. When will we see the publication of that legislation?

We need those urgent changes regarding the fair deal scheme legislation. Farmers are still being discriminated against, especially small family farms. There is a duty on us here to ensure that we are helping these family farms to survive in every way we can. When will those changes take place? The last Government led farmers up the garden path on this issue and I believe the legislation needs to change urgently.

I thank the Deputies for raising what is an important issue for the farming community. I do not think that legislation will be dealt with this month, so it will fall to the autumn session. I have, however, asked the Ministers to prioritise this matter and it is in the programme for Government. The Deputies are correct, however, that people have been waiting for some time. There have been some issues with some of the stakeholders regarding this matter, which perhaps have delayed its progress, but I am determined that we will get this legislation published and into the House.

Given the extremely disturbing nature of the commentary of the activist Peter Tatchell presenting sex education with children in a positive light, will the Taoiseach confirm that Mr. Tatchell or his organisation, the Peter Tatchell Foundation, and the other organisations with which he is associated, did not have any engagement with the Department of Education and Skills and will not have any engagement but, more importantly, did not have any engagement with the Minister with responsibility for children and the policy regarding sex education for our children in national schools? The commentary of Mr. Tatchell is very disturbing and I want to know if Mr. Tatchell, or any of the organisations with which he is involved - they are numerous and he is a patron of some of them - has had any engagement and, if so, what the nature of that engagement is.

I will make two points on this issue. I do not believe so but I do not know the man at all. The attacks on the Minister for children were completely outrageous and unacceptable. It was the kind of online hate campaign that we should really be very strongly against. We have good centre ground in this country that really resents the online vile hatred that is directed against people in an unjustified way. That is not what the Deputy is saying, I accept that, but-----

That is not what I said.

No. My experience regarding the development of the relationships and sexuality education, RSE, programme is that the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, will have an input, as well as expertise from psychologists etc. It is a much more rounded formulation and development for children, obviously age appropriate and with different programs at different levels. Much work goes into that and it is considered and important work. It needs to be modernised.

At what age-----

It is based on core human values of respect, consent, self-esteem and self-respect. People have misguided views regarding what sex education is about and what sexuality and relationship education is about and we need to keep this in perspective. Frankly, I would have thought the last place for that to be deliberated upon is on social media.

I am following up on last week when I asked a question about masks. I refer to the 2 m social distancing on public transport having been reduced to 1 m without the mandatory wearing of masks or criminal consequences or fines. It is welcome that that happened this Monday. I use buses and public transport all the time. I was on the bus yesterday and everybody was wearing masks and I was on the Luas today and everybody was also wearing masks. The drivers, however, were expected to tell people that they could not board without a mask. I think that is outrageous and the issue should be looked at from the perspective of the National Bus and Rail Union, NBRU, raising the issue of policing public transport.

We are increasingly reaching a point now where everybody should be wearing a mask in public in indoor places, such as in supermarkets and other retail outlets and even in here. We should all be wearing masks to protect one another. I am not an expert in this area, but the Government should be looking at this issue now from the point of view of public health. I would like the Taoiseach's opinion on this matter.

I recall the Deputy raising this issue last week and I did move to try to bring this matter to a conclusion. That is why on Friday the Minister for Health signed the regulations regarding the wearing of masks on public transport. I did that notwithstanding the tensions. These things can be delayed indefinitely because of people wanting to know who is going to do everything, specifically and exactly. It is interesting that once the regulations were signed, the public adhered to them. It is always my view that the public is generally compliant with regulations that are passed in the public interest and so it turned out.

I respect the position of the NBRU. My late father was a founding member of the NBRU and sometimes I am accused of having too soft a spot for it by other unions. Notwithstanding that, we need to work collectively to ensure that what has emerged remains the position. Regarding other sectors, we need to examine what the position will be in respect of retail locations, for example. That is something that will be subject to further examination.

On page 113, the programme for Government refers to outlining preparations for post-Covid-19 education and the return to school. The Taoiseach has just said that it is the number one priority. Parents, however, were absolutely aghast at the interview given by the Minister for Education and Skills to the Sunday Independent because there was scarcely any answer at all in the interview.

It is 15 July, it is four months since schools closed and it is about six weeks until schools reopen. Consultations only began in mid to late May. We were promised a roadmap a month ago.

That seems to have completely fallen off the agenda. Parents are at a loss. Many are very concerned and unbelievably frustrated. They want to know whether their children will be back for three, four or five days per week. They want to know whether they will have to wear masks on buses. They want to know how many children will be in each pod. They want to know whether schools will get extra funding, resources and teachers. All those questions are unanswered at this stage. Time is running out. It is not good enough. Of all Departments, the Department of Education and Skills has been the most slack in the Covid-19 context. Parents and teachers are frustrated.

Special needs assistants should be included as well.

There has been comprehensive engagement by the Minister and the Department - the Minister in particular - with the stakeholders involved in education with a view to facilitating the reopening of schools at the end of August. It is something to which I am personally very committed. As I have said repeatedly in the House, the reopening of schools is important for the development of the child and it is something I want to see happening. This has wider implications for the wider Covid-19 issue and the continued suppression of the virus. The Government will be considering the NPHET advice this evening in the context of the objective of getting schools open again towards the end of August.

What is the plan? When will it happen?

It may interest the Deputy to know that I spoke to the Welsh First Minister last week. In Wales schools have been open for the past three weeks - they have a later session - and this has worked far better for them than they had anticipated. My understanding is that schools in Scotland will be reopening on 11 August. We are learning lessons from other countries.

My question relates to the Charities Act 2009. Are all sections of the Act in operation?

I will have to check that. I will get a written report back to the Deputy on it.

Deputy James Browne is next. Níl sé anseo. Deputy Thomas Gould is next.

Page 56 of the programme for Government commits the Government to self-harm education programmes on drug misuse. Last week the new Minister was unaware of the serious issues relating to nitrous oxide abuse. When will these education campaigns be rolled out? What format will they take? Will the Taoiseach commit to requesting that the new Minister take one of these courses? He obviously needs it.

Is Deputy Gould going to provide it?

He will do it at a discount.

This is a very serious issue. The broad area of alcohol and drug abuse, in particular the degree to which young people are targeted, is very serious indeed. We will be working on it. It has to be cross-cutting and cross-departmental to be effective, between the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Health, as well as youth services. That is something we will attend to as quickly as we possibly can.

Page 97 of the programme for Government commits to establishing a high-level cross-departmental and cross-agency taskforce to consider the mental health and addiction challenges of those imprisoned and primary care supports on their release. The community prison links service was put in place to assist prisoners who have additional support needs for addiction and dual diagnosis when exiting prison. This service helps prisoners to assimilate and helps reduce reoffending.

At present community prison link workers are not on the approved professional telephone call and visitor lists. This means prisoners have to choose between a professional visit and a family visit. Is the Taoiseach aware of this situation? Will the Taoiseach commit to measures that will rectify this?

I presume that is on public health grounds. I will check out the situation. If the Deputy wishes to send a note to me on it I will follow it up and see what can be done.

I want to raise with the Taoiseach the plight of school transport operators. They will have been out of work for six months when, hopefully, the schools reopen in September. They are one of the hardest-hit sectors. They are in serious trouble. The representative group has been in touch with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to outline measures that will help them to stay in business. They have been excluded from all grant aid. The only possibility of generating income is when schools are back. Will the Taoiseach take on board their proposals and commit to specific measures to help them in the July stimulus package? Such measures would help them to stay in business and give them a chance to recover from this crisis that has hit them so hard and is not of their making.

To be fair, the wage subsidy scheme has been of help to businesses across all sectors. Other measures have been taken to protect livelihoods as well. The July job stimulus programme will be of assistance for those in school transport in the general sense in terms of the range of supports that will be made available and opportunities to access funding. Of course the key enabler will be the reopening of the schools and the need for school transport services.

I am sure the Taoiseach, as a former Minister with responsibility for education - I have another here beside me - will value the major changes that are occurring in apprenticeships. We are going from 25 traditional apprenticeships to 100 potential new apprenticeships. One of the things that has been holding this back is the very limited involvement of the public service in apprenticeships. Will the Taoiseach consider, through either the July stimulus package or the national economic plan, providing for the public service to take on an ambitious programme of apprenticeships? Many of the apprenticeship areas are now relevant, including laboratory technicians, engineering services staff, maintenance engineers, accounting technicians, financial services staff and supply chain specialists. They are very much at the core of what the public service should be doing. It would be a great boost to apprenticeships. Let us compare Ireland to Germany. A total of 500,000 people enrol in apprenticeships every year in Germany. In Ireland it is only 1% of that number.

I agree wholeheartedly with the Deputy. The public services need to do far more in terms of providing apprenticeships and opportunities, especially in the current crisis. They should provide opportunities for young people to avail of apprenticeships and internships.

One thinks of the great role semi-state companies played in the past in terms of apprenticeship and training across the board. It is something that needs to be rekindled, regenerated and rejuvenated in the modern public service. The Deputy has made an important point and it is one I take a personal interest in. The Minister with responsibility for higher education has raised the issue of apprenticeships and initiatives for young people in the context of the July stimulus.

The programme for Government refers to how the State has a fundamental role in ensuring the best use of the existing housing stock. A key threat to best use is short-term holiday lettings eating up supply in cases where landlords are putting a whole house or whole apartment out to rent. The existing relevant regulations have been shown to be too weak and there are issues with enforcement.

This sector has been decimated by Covid-19. The flood of properties that were in this sector but are now up for general rent on the market shows the effect the sector has on supply. While things are far lower due to Covid-19 surely this is the time to look at strengthening these regulations and addressing the structural issues. Does the Taoiseach agree that now is the time to review the regulations so we can make best use of the housing stock as things recover?

In principle, yes. This is an opportunity, particularly on the homelessness question, to drive down homelessness. The Deputy is correct in saying that it illustrates the impact short-term lettings have had on the availability of units and houses for people generally. We have to prioritise. I will certainly be speaking to the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government about reviewing those regulations.

I raised privately with the Taoiseach earlier the issue of the iconic and transformative north quays project for Waterford. I know he is aware of the importance of this project. Planning permission was granted last week. The council has tried to get certainty on funding and the sequencing right for two and a half years, but this has still not happened. I spoke to the CEO of the council earlier, who is exasperated. It is very important for the future of Waterford city and the south-east. Can the Taoiseach intervene and talk to the Ministers with responsibility for housing and local government and public expenditure and reform and give the people of the south-east certainty on this iconic project so that it can go ahead very quickly?

The Deputy spoke to me before this session. It is very important project and one that has great potential for Waterford. I will pursue the issue. Notwithstanding that I am Taoiseach, it is not in my gift to instruct every Minister to provide every grant to every project. This is an important project with critical mass that can have knock-on benefits for the region. I will talk to the Ministers with responsibility for housing and public expenditure about it.

On behalf of all of the publicans in rural Ireland, I ask the Taoiseach to give them the green light to open next Monday. They have waited for 17 or 18 weeks. People living in rural valleys, glens and highways do not have the wherewithal to go to bigger towns where they have to have a meal. They do not have the time or funding to do so. People used to go to their local pub for a couple of drinks. They are at their wits' end. Mental health is an issue for publicans and people who cannot get a drink and have a conversation in rural Ireland because all the doors have been closed to them. Some two-thirds of the publicans in Dublin are working. Half of the pubs in larger towns have reopened. Nothing is happening in rural Ireland. Places such as Gneeveguilla, Scartaglin, Rathmore, Brosna, Knocknagoshel and Sneem have been shut down. It is not fair. The Government is discriminating against the publicans in rural Ireland.

I am reluctant to intervene in such lyricism. The manner in which the Deputy can ream off wonderful phrases is something I genuinely enjoy. His point is well made. In respect of the plight of publicans in rural Ireland and the life experience of people more generally in terms of the impact of Covid-19, the overriding priority will be public health. Public health advice will be made available to the Cabinet this evening and the Government will make a decision based on that. As I said earlier, there is some concern about the increase in the spread of the virus. We have to be very clear-headed about our overarching priority and where our focus needs to be. That is the approach that will inform our response to NPHET's advice.

We are rapidly running out of time and there is no hope of dealing with all of the names that are in front of me. I will take one final question. I call Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh.

Can we get some fairness in how slots are allocated? Eight were allocated to Sinn Féin.

Not one time were we called. This is the second week in a row-----


Okay. I want to clarify that. First, we try to keep it short. If everybody makes a short submission in their first question, we can get through an awful lot more. If, however, people have a preamble before they raise their question, that immediately shortens the time we have. I am working off the list that was given to the Ceann Comhairle.

There is more than one Opposition party.

I am aware of all that. The list is here. The Deputy can come and inspect it now. I am working off the list that was there. The time has now expired altogether-----


I am sorry. We cannot go on like this. We are not going to go on like this. The time has now expired. That is the end of the questions-----

We cannot go on like this. I am sorry about that, but the time has expired. It is to be hoped it will be possible to deal with the remaining questions tomorrow. That will be a matter for the Ceann Comhairle. That concludes Questions on Promised Legislation.