Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Leaders' Questions have concluded almost miraculously on time. Before proceeding to questions on promised legislation, I wish to make a few housekeeping points. I am conscious of the fact that we have many new Members so I remind you that we have 30 minutes for this business. The questions should be on promised legislation or the programme for Government, nothing else. The selection of Deputies is based on the leaders of parties and groups as per the rota followed by everybody else on a first come, first served basis. Deputy Durkan was in the Chair yesterday and was subject to some pressure from Members who were unhappy. Today, I have 52 names before me, 26 carried forward from yesterday and 26 that were given today. Whether Members write to me, email me, come to the platform and give me their names or send me a smoke signal, I will not be able to call all 52 Members, and unless the Members who are called adhere to the timeline, I will be able to call even fewer.

I call Deputy Doherty.

On 26 December last year, President Higgins signed a Bill I sponsored into law, the Consumer Insurance Contracts Act 2019, three years after I initiated it in the House. It was passed unanimously on all Stages in the Dáil and Seanad. It was described as a game changer by the Alliance for Insurance Reform and by others as the most radical change in insurance law in this century. It shifted the balance away from the insurance companies in favour of the consumer. The Tánaiste will be aware that hundreds, if not thousands, of people have made claims in respect of business interruption insurance. Many have been forced to go to the courts to vindicate their rights under their contracts, which are being disputed by the insurance companies. My legislation would have cleared much of this up because there is a section in the Bill which provides that any ambiguity in contracts must be interpreted in favour of the consumer.

The Minister for Finance engaged with major insurers at the start of the year. They told him they did not want the Bill to be implemented at this time, despite it being passed unanimously by the Houses and it being over three years since it was introduced. He decided not to implement the Bill. Some 10,000 people have signed a petition calling for it to be implemented and thousands of businesses need it. When will all sections of the Bill be implemented by the Government?

I am afraid I do not know. I will have to check with the Minister for Finance or the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Fleming, who is now responsible for insurance. I will do that today and get a further reply for the Deputy.

My question relates to the temporary wage subsidy scheme and how it relates to applications for short-time work. I have clarified with the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection that people who are working 30% of their hours and in receipt of the temporary wage subsidy scheme can apply for short-time work. That has been made clear, but employers are not signing the UP14 form. This is happening in the aviation sector and in Aer Lingus. Can the Tánaiste and the Government provide clarity to the employers to sign that form and let the workers take their chances with their Intreo office on that application?

Again, I will have to check that with the line Minister and I will do that.

I refer the Tánaiste back to the world before Covid-19. In February 2013, the Tánaiste's predecessor as leader of Fine Gael and former Taoiseach, Mr. Enda Kenny, made a heartfelt and profound apology to victims and survivors of the Magdalen laundries. In May 2013 that apology came with a suite of recommendations from Mr. Justice John Quirke on how we could memorialise and give basic provisions to those survivors. Many of those promises have still not been fulfilled, and few of them are contained in the programme for Government. Recommendation 6 from Mr. Justice Quirke was about memorialisation. Does the Tánaiste envisage that being delivered under this Government?

The short answer to the Deputy's question is "Yes". It may not be specifically referenced in the programme for Government, but the new Government will want to honour the commitments the last Government made to the survivors of the Magdalen laundries. Memorialisation is part of that. What form or shape it will take will have to discussed, especially with the survivors. This issue is one of the responsibilities of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy O'Gorman. He will need a few weeks or so to get on top of all those issues, but I know he will take that matter very seriously. He will also be responsible for the report on the mother and baby homes, which I believe will give rise to similar issues when it is produced later this year.

The temporary ban on evictions is due to expire on Monday. There have been indications that the Government intends to extend it, but I would like to have confirmation that it will. Many tenants are very anxious. Given the direction of the virus at present, the idea that people would be evicted into homelessness and faced with the current pandemic is totally unthinkable from a public health point of view, not to mind a moral point of view. I know a group of tenants in my constituency who are facing a fourth eviction attempt by vulture funds, which are trying to clear them out and maximise the profits they can make. They have been told by the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, that their case will come up in a few weeks. They have done nothing wrong. They need to have the security that they are not going to be evicted in the midst of a pandemic.

This was discussed by the Cabinet yesterday. The temporary ban on evictions will not end on Monday. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, will make an announcement in early course as to what his intentions are in this regard. As the Deputy will appreciate, however, the legal advice on this is very strong and states that the ban can only be temporary and cannot continue forever, for reasons that are well rehearsed. A medium-term solution will be needed as well as a temporary extension of the ban. The Minister is working on this and will make a statement on it soon.

I will not harangue the Tánaiste. He has been asked a lot of questions on the hospitality and drinks sector, and I appreciate that he has an understanding of it. What I will say is that for the Government to show it understands the hammer blow that has been delivered, it should support the sector's employees and enterprises, some of which have now been closed for over 16 weeks. I ask the Tánaiste to confirm that as part of the July stimulus legislation, which will be brought before the House before the recess, the Government will reduce the VAT rate on the hospitality sector, to include on-trade alcohol sales. There are 266,000 people employed in the sector, or 11% of our overall employees. Some 9,300 of these people are in Wexford, which used to have 43 pubs but now has 17. I ask the Tánaiste to confirm that.

I cannot confirm that at this point because the decisions to be made on what will and will not be in the July stimulus will not be made until a Cabinet meeting on Monday or Tuesday. We will make any announcements next week. A reduction in the VAT rate is of little use to pubs that cannot open. The best thing we can do for the sector is to get the pubs open. When a business is closed it does not pay any VAT. The best thing we can do to help pubs and other businesses that have not reopened to reopen over the coming weeks is to go back to doing what we have done really well as a country for a couple of months now, that is, social distancing, handwashing, sneezing and coughing into a tissue, keeping a reasonable distance from other people and wearing masks on public transport and in crowded indoor spaces. If we get back to that, I think the number of new cases will level off. It will stay at perhaps 20 per day, and that will allow us to proceed to phase 4. That is what we need to aim to do.

The publicans, their families and their customers have been let down. They have actually been misled. When Deputy Varadkar was Taoiseach, he announced that he wanted the pubs to reopen from next Monday. He said it again last week in this House and again this week in his role as Tánaiste. Now we have a new Taoiseach and he has been a failure to the publicans. Why were they not told earlier? Why have they been forced into this situation after having bought and paid for their stock and refitted their pubs at enormous expense? They have had mental health issues as well. They were looking forward to seeing their customers and reopening carefully, looking after staff, families and customers alike. This is unbelievable. A three-card trick has been played on them. If the Government is serious about the pandemic, why did the Tánaiste, when he was Taoiseach, personally refuse to close the ports and airports and why does he still do so? It sticks in the craw to see tourists coming in while publicans cannot open their businesses. These are many valuable businesses. They pay tax, rates, VAT and insurance, pay for light, heat and everything else and support all local initiatives. Their mental health is now deteriorating. This is a real hammer blow. It is a real let-down. The publicans have been deceived.

Following up on that, up to ten people can meet in a house. Anyone who had a bull's iota about rural Ireland would know that in most pubs in rural Ireland during the week there might not be four or five people. To stop them from opening is a hammer blow. The Government should look at this again because these pubs need to get up and running not only for the survival of the businesses themselves but also for communities throughout the rural areas.

Yesterday's decision was disastrous for rural pubs. Rural pubs are being thrown into the same phase of reopening as nightclubs. They are totally different types of businesses. The Government has to get a common understanding of a rural pub. It obviously has not had such an understanding up here in recent years. Rural pubs are being thrown in with urban pubs, including Dublin pubs. It is a totally different type of business. In rural pubs four or five customers enjoy a drink in safe proximity. What the Government has led is the opening up of illegal bars all over the place, including in west Cork, in my constituency. There are large house parties. Publicans listened to vibes they got from the Tánaiste and other politicians in government and assumed the Government would allow for the reopening of pubs. They bought their stock. They are down thousands of euro. They are going out of business. Many have pulled the plug as of the Government's decision yesterday evening. It has to rescind that decision.

While we accept the health advice given yesterday, many pubs in my constituency, Tipperary, have been hit hard by the extended closures due to Covid and have lost even more money by preparing for a scheduled reopening which has now been cancelled at very short notice. Will the Government provide support for such pubs in the July stimulus package? Grants must be made available quickly to businesses such as these pubs.

The Tánaiste is the Tánaiste for all the country, not just Dublin. If the public health officials do not understand rural people or rural publicans, the Tánaiste should. Is this another way of routing us out of rural Ireland? It is fairly foolish to think the virus can know whether people are eating their dinner with their pints. Most of the people I represent eat their dinner in the middle of the day. The virus does not know whether they are eating meals with their pints. It is fairly foolish that this is the story preventing us and rural publicans right around the country from reopening. The Government is blackguarding and discriminating against rural publicans and rural people.

I know the difference between a rural pub and a nightclub. I used to have a very good social life and I know about everything in between. Indeed, I have been in the Deputy's family's pub, and a very nice evening we had. However, the assertion that was made is incorrect. We always said from day one that this was a plan that could be accelerated, slowed down or paused, based on public health advice. I understand and feel for people who have painted their pubs in recent days, were gearing up for the reopening, had ordered in stock and now find themselves in a difficult position. Let us try to get them open in three weeks' time. Let us not see their reopening put off again. The best way we can do that is to get the guidelines right. That might be about limiting occupancy to very small numbers-----

Numbers are limited anyway.

-----or, more importantly, about the right behaviours on the part of us as a society in getting the virus back under control.

We need to be frank about closing the ports and airports. This virus will go on for many more months, possibly years. It is not feasible to cut ourselves off from the rest of the world, to stop Irish citizens returning home, to stop people visiting their friends and relatives in other countries, to stop necessary-----

How have other countries done it?

They have not, actually.

No, it has not. Hungary has an A list, B list and C list-----

-----and there are different rules for different countries. It is not feasible for us to do that.

We cannot start having exchanges about this now.

I bring to the Tánaiste's attention a very tragic case in County Clare, that of Jennifer Hynes, 42 years of age, in permanent residency in Mowlam nursing home in Ennis. Jennifer suffers from cerebral palsy, has daily seizures and is one of many young people in Irish nursing homes. The programme for Government promises to eliminate this practice and to get these people into more suitable permanent accommodation where their needs can be met. This is a tragic case. Jennifer is a fish out of water. It is a perfect nursing home but it is not perfect for her needs. I ask the Government to look at expediting these cases. They are tragic. We need to move them forward.

I wish to raise the same issue. I was also contacted by Jennifer Hynes. She is only 42 years of age and is now stuck in a nursing home. She has had her local authority housing removed from her. Page 78 of the programme for Government states that the Government will "eliminate the practice of accommodating young people with serious disabilities in nursing homes". I ask the Tánaiste to ensure this is done urgently in my constituency of Clare. Jennifer is in a bad situation and cannot even engage in group activities because of her disabilities. This needs to stop.

This is on the disabilities sector in the programme for Government, which we were talking about and is on page 90. I will speak on the somewhat connected issue of suspension of day care and respite services for people with intellectual disabilities due to Covid-19. I have been contacted, as have many of my colleagues, by many parents who are left dealing with children and sometimes adults with intellectual disabilities at home with little or no support. Will the Tánaiste address the issue of when the day care and respite centres will reopen? Parents are reporting instances of regression, violence, being withdrawn or loneliness and it is a matter of urgency at this stage.

I thank the Deputies for raising the important issue of younger people in nursing homes. There are also younger people staying in hospitals for a prolonged period, months or years in some cases, because there is nowhere for them to go other than a nursing home, which is inappropriate. This is an issue we will talk about a good deal in the next couple of months. The Ombudsman is doing a report on the matter as we speak and that is why a specific commitment is included in the programme for Government.

I am sorry to hear about Jennifer's situation. I will not comment on an individual case without having information on it but I know there are thousands of younger people in Ireland who are living in nursing homes with older people. While I am sure they get good care, it is not right and I have seen this. One goes into a nursing home where all the activities are designed for older people and to see a young person stuck there with them is heartbreaking. I know from my experience as a doctor a long time ago that we often have younger people in a single room in a hospital or in a hospital bed for months because there is nowhere else for them to go. That is why we have a specific commitment to deal with this in the programme for Government.

It may need a mix of solutions, including, obviously, much enhanced home care and adaptions to home in order that people can return home and in some cases it may mean specific homes for younger people. The problem will not be solved quickly but it is on our agenda. I promise the Deputies that.

I have spent the last three years raising the issue of school transport and catchment areas. In east Cork we have a problem with school places. Some people have to travel outside their catchment area and it is their only option to get a school place but when they go for school transport, they fall outside the remit and end up having concessionary tickets. They are not covered under the medical card and it causes immense stress. We have raised this over the last number of years. Is there any common-sense approach or to whom can we speak to address this issue? Children are stressed. They only have an option of one school on the opposite side of east Cork and they are being punished because they will not qualify for free transport. The buses are demanding the €350 payment now and they are still unsure if they are even going back to school in August. Is there any way of reviewing these circumstances? This has been ongoing for the past three years and is causing stress to families and schoolchildren.

This is a matter for the Minister, Deputy Foley, and, representing Kerry, I am sure she is familiar with school transport and the issues around that. It is never an easily-solved problem. We have changed the rules on a few occasions. One rule is changed and a new anomaly or problem is created somewhere else. Then there is the difference between people who are entitled to a school pass and those who are not but receive it on a concessionary basis. It is an issue that I believe will never be fully sorted but if there are improvements we can make that do not cost too much, we are willing to make them.

On page 73 of the programme for Government, there is a promise to develop a carer's proposal that would provide a core budget for services for carers across the State and ensure that the most effective interventions are provided for each individual. I will give three examples to the Tánaiste from our constituency. There is Alan, who loves the freedom of walking to his local centre in Blakestown, which has been closed during the Covid pandemic and will hopefully be opened in September. James is five years of age and lives in Corduff but as there are no bus services, his mother has to pay €70 per day to get to the Navan Road. Carl is 32 and is up in Littlepace and is desperately missing his friends in that service. I know there is promised legislation on all of these things around carers and disability but these people need their services to be open now. They are really struggling. I urge that any action that can be taken be taken immediately.

I thank the Deputy. This is very much on the agenda of Government. We want those services to be open as soon as possible. We anticipate they will be open no later than the end of August or September. I know a lot of people want them open right away but there are different circumstances in different centres and different solutions are needed at different times. I hear what the Deputy is saying. I am aware of individual cases as well and I know my colleagues are working hard on this issue.

Page 40 of the programme for Government refers to investment in wastewater treatment. In our towns and villages, in particular, we need that investment now more than ever. I know the Tánaiste is familiar with Kinsale and near Kinsale there is a small village called Belgooly. The residents of that village have to close their windows and doors because of the foul stench coming from a treatment plant that clearly does not work. In the village of Shannonvale, near my home town of Clonakilty, there is a black liquid coming up to the surface of an area where children should be at play. They have had to cordon it off. Will the Tánaiste comment on the future investment in wastewater treatment, particularly in our towns and villages? Will he look into those two individual cases? I do not expect the Tánaiste to have detailed answers on them but I ask him to give me an assurance that someone will seek to address them. Irish Water's response to date has been wholly inadequate.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. There is a very extensive, multibillion euro capital programme which Irish Water is implementing on an ongoing basis. Huge improvements have been made in recent years in terms of water quality, reduction in amounts of unaccounted water, reduction in number of boil notices and so on. However, a huge amount remains to be done because of the level of underinvestment that occurred for a very long time prior to the establishment of Irish Water. This will be a priority for the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. I will ask him to come back to the Deputy on those particular places.

I would like to raise an issue on page 87 of the programme of Government regarding family carers. There has been no increase in family carer's allowance since 2008. There has been no review since 2005. Will the Tánaiste please consider home carers' tax credits be made available to single carers who work part-time while caring for a dependent person? At present, this is only available to married couples and jointly assessed couples, which, in my view, is discriminatory.

If my memory serves me correctly, the carer's allowance, although it was not increased this year, was increased last year. I think it was also increased each of the three years before that. The respite care grant, which was turned into the carer support grant, was restored back to what it was prior to the last financial crisis. On tax credits, I will come back to the Deputy. That is a matter for the Minister for Finance but we will consider an increase for the budget in October.

Will the Tánaiste introduce legislation to give effect to the 2008 court recommendation on the pension rights of community employment, CE, supervisors? There is not a village in the country that does not benefit from CE scheme workers. That value of the work they do far outweighs the financial reward they receive. They keep community groups alive in rural areas in particular. I recently met CE supervisors in Kildare town. The work they do is invaluable to towns like Kildare, Newbridge, Monasterevin, Portarlington and Rathangan and the workers need to get what they deserve. More than 1,200 community employment scheme supervisors have been overseeing 900 State-funded services, ranging from childcare to meals on wheels, for almost 30 years. Their job is all the more challenging as we hover on the verge of full employment, as they deal with people who have been left behind by the so-called recovery. Will the Tánaiste please give them some hope and give them what they are entitled to?

I thank the Deputy. This is an issue I am familiar with and it has been going on for a long time.

We would very much like to see a solution to this issue, but I do not think that solution will be a legislative one. The relevant Labour Court recommendation called on the employer at the time to establish a pension scheme. The State is not the employer of CE scheme supervisors and, therefore, it was not our responsibility to establish a scheme. Of course, had there been a scheme, it would have been expected that the supervisors would pay into it, but they did not. That is the crux of the issue. Anybody who pays PRSI is entitled to a State pension, and CE scheme supervisors are entitled to one. However, we are not in a position to give an occupational pension to people who did not pay into an occupational scheme. If we open that door, there will be no end to it. Public service pensions only go to public servants and occupational pensions only go to people who paid into them. If we opened that door, there would be no end to the numbers of knock-on claims. Perhaps we can come up with some solution that is not a pension, and we are open to that.

Page 25 of the programme for Government contains a commitment regarding the future of the aviation sector. At the moment, there is contradictory and conflicting advice on travel, which is undermining confidence in the aviation sector and the public health effort. Aeroplanes are taking off but the advice is for people to avoid non-essential foreign travel. It is proposed to extend this advice by way of the publication of a green list on Monday. This policy is incoherent, contradictory and confused and it is having a very significant impact on people who have booked package holidays and flights abroad. Will the Tánaiste indicate what protections he will provide for consumers in those circumstances? Will he call on the airlines to allow people to reschedule for free or to provide vouchers or refunds as appropriate?

The public needs clarity regarding travel this summer. The message might be that all non-essential travel is not advised and that anyone coming to Ireland should isolate for 14 days. In practice, however, Irish consumers are about to lose massive sums because flights are still running, hotels abroad are open while large numbers of non-isolating tourists from abroad are wandering around the country. In other words, there are two issues arising. The first issue is the money Irish consumers are losing, which they could spend in their local economy, and, second, there is the matter of the number of flights coming into the country from abroad. We might pride ourselves on policing by co-operation but we cannot encourage policing by civilians. There is so much anger about this issue but, listening to the Tánaiste answering questions, I do not think he realises the extent of it. Are we looking now at enforcement and protocols? What follow-up procedures are in place and have any fines issued? Given that we could be facing another surge in infections, I ask the Tánaiste to address these questions.

My question concerns the front-line workers who booked and paid for holidays last year that were to be taken this summer. The flights are going out but, according to the Government direction, people are not supposed to travel. Most are being responsible and not travelling. If they travel, they are told they will have to stay off work for two weeks when they come back. If they do not travel, they will lose the funds they saved up for a whole year to pay for their holiday. The front-line workers who kept us safe through all of this are being penalised if they do and penalised if they do not.

Before asking the Tánaiste to respond to those related questions, I call on Deputy McNamara. I apologise for forgetting to call him earlier.

Legislation is imminent to push back phase 4 of the reopening because of the increase in the Covid-19 transmission rate or R-nought rate. This delay will affect rural pubs, as we have heard, but it will also affect sporting events, weddings and family events throughout the country. Does the Tánaiste accept that the R-nought rate in Dublin is now running at twice the level of the rate in the rest of the country? Does he agree that it is no longer appropriate to treat the country as one region and that we need, in the forthcoming legislation, to differentiate between places where there is a different R-nought rate? That is what almost every other country in the world is now doing; certainly, every country in Europe is doing it. Will the legislation to be introduced next week differentiate between Dublin, where the R-nought rate is twice as high as it is in the rest of the country, with regard to the restrictions which are proportionate and necessary?

The legislation we will introduce next week will not make that distinction, but I do not rule out the possibility, further down the line, of having different rules for different regions and different parts of Ireland. However, this is not straightforward. If we open pubs in one part of the country, we will see people travelling from other parts to where the measures are less restrictive. We need to bear that in mind. Counties in Ireland are not like states in Australia or the länder in Germany. Ireland is a small country and it is very easy to get around quickly. If we do not have different restrictions in different areas, we must bear in mind that there may be pull factors that bring the virus into a particular area.

I thank Deputies O'Rourke, Murnane O'Connor and O'Donoghue for raising the issue of international travel. The Government needs to clarify this matter and we will do so on Monday. There have, to a certain extent, been mixed messages from Government and NPHET in this regard. We will clarify all the issues on Monday. To be clear, the message from Government at this time is that we are asking people not to engage in any non-essential travel off the island. In addition, people coming into the island for any reason are being asked to restrict their movements, not self-isolate or quarantine, for 14 days. The only exceptions are people who work on aeroplanes or boats and diplomats. The guidance applies to everyone else. We will produce a green list on Monday of the countries with an incidence of the virus similar to or lower than our own. Logically, the advice for people travelling to and from each of those countries will be different.

That concludes Questions on Promised Legislation. We will start next week with a clean sheet.