Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Some 43 Deputies have indicated. I call Deputy McDonald.

I ask the Taoiseach about the HIQA report into nursing homes which contained some very damning observations. It is absolutely apparent that nursing homes did not conform to any satisfactory level of clinical governance and were left without the human and practical resources necessary to protect residents and staff. We know how all of this ended. It ended with many people losing their lives with many families to this day shattered by that traumatising experience.

We need to know what happened in the nursing homes because we need to put right the wrongs of the past number of months. We also need to prepare ourselves for the real possibility of a second surge, as well as to prepare ourselves for the autumn and winter. We need to be absolutely sure that those living in nursing homes are properly cared for and that their families and the wider community have that confidence.

I propose we establish a special Oireachtas committee to speedily, efficiently and compassionately examine what happened in our nursing homes. I propose the Taoiseach would support the establishment of this committee.

The Deputy's time is up.

We must do the work now and throughout August to ensure this committee can speedily work in order we learn the lessons and the families affected have some platform for their real experiences to be recorded and responded to.

It is an important and serious report from HIQA. We will examine it in considerable detail. Some of the issues in the 45-page report are concerning in terms of breaches of regulations, management failings, staff shortages and lack of infection control measures. That was after dozens of inspections at homes with confirmed cases since May.

Sometimes we do not acknowledge the role of HIQA in terms of its regulatory functions, a body which I established quite some time ago. It has brought about reforms in health through its regulatory rigour which is applied to all settings without fear or favour. It is not always popular because of that but, nonetheless, it is an important vehicle towards reform.

The Minister has informed me that the expert review on Covid in nursing homes should be on his desk next week. With the publication of that, we should liaise with all parties to work out the next steps on that.

In the first instance, we need to learn the lessons so that we can apply them when issues may arise again - hopefully they will not if we can avoid them - with a second spike in the autumn and the 'flu season. That is the spirit in which I want to approach this. We must also make sure that we take medium-term lessons as to how we reform the care of the elderly into the future and have a broader range of support options for families and people.

On climate change, if the Government is to reach its target of producing 70% of its electricity from renewable resources, wind energy, including offshore wind energy, will play a significant role. My question relates to the marine planning development and management Bill, which was due before quarter 3 of this year. What are the plans relating to it and will the Taoiseach provide the House with a timeline for its presentation?

I am very keen in terms of the development of offshore wind. I think it is going to be a key contributor to our energy capacity into the future and in terms of meeting our climate change agenda, so that legislation, it is hoped, will be published in the autumn, probably towards the latter part of the year.

We are five weeks away from schools opening and one week away from taking our recess, yet there is still no certainty about how the schools are going to open. Children do not know whether they will be in with their school friends for an entire week or part of a week, parents do not know whether they will have to source childcare for part of the week, and schools, principals and teachers do not know what level of support and funding they will get. When will the Government publish a clear plan for schools to reopen at the end of August, including a funding structure for them?

I assure the Deputy that this is an absolute priority of the Government, that being, to get the schools reopened. A lot of work has been under way working with all of the stakeholders, which is important. I would prefer one comprehensive announcement on this as opposed to piecemeal announcements, responses and so on. This needs to be a comprehensive response. A lot of work is under way by the Department itself, the stakeholders in education and the Minister, and the Minister is very keen, obviously, to make a public comprehensive statement on this when everything has been put together, including funding and the arrangements that will apply.

According to the section on health in the programme for Government, the Government's priority is to protect public health by following public health advice. On the day that another front-line health worker has tragically lost his life as a result of Covid-19, does the Taoiseach really believe it is a good time to start abandoning adherence to public health advice of the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, on the issue of foreign travel? What is happening is quite extraordinary. This morning, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, stated that he would make things clear but then went on to muddy further already murky waters by saying that, although the Government did not want people to go and would prefer if they did not, they could do so. That is essentially the advice. It is like arriving at a set of traffic lights where the green and red lights are simultaneously illuminated.

The red light is on now, Deputy, because you are out of time.

It is confusing and clearly not in line with the public health advice being issued by NPHET on foreign travel. How does the Taoiseach explain that?

I think the Deputy is overstating the issue. We take the issue in terms of travel and its potential contributory effect to Covid very seriously. That is why we have one of the most restrictive travel frameworks globally. We are very restrictive in this country in terms of the number of people coming into the country and the advice we have given people, and people by and large have complied with that advice. Hence, the very low numbers, relative to what happened before Covid, that are travelling either in or out of the country. People are travelling to countries that, in my view, have a very high incidence of Covid, but it is important to say that there are other countries there that have a lower incidence of Covid than we have ourselves. I think there has to be a consistency of messaging in that regard as well.

I thank the Taoiseach. Time is up.

The key point that I again have to reiterate has to do with testing, contact tracing and having strong measures at our airports to protect people from Covid.

The Taoiseach described the deal that we got at the weekend as a good one for Europe. Only four countries - Germany, France, the Netherlands and Sweden - are to contribute more than us. Germany will pay €1,606 per capita. Ireland will pay €3,201 per head. This is a rotten deal. After the miserable so-called bailout, which I called a clean-out at the time, this is another bad deal. The frugal five were strong, and they were right to be so, because they got write-offs. We are the good boys in Europe, the lapdogs, and we say that everything is grand, give us the punishment and we will take it. We end up being screwed, pardon the expletive. It is a disgraceful deal. We cannot accept this. Our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren should not be burdened with it. It is a shocking indictment of so-called solidarity in Europe. It is a disgrace. It is time that we took off the gloves and were not the good boys in Europe. Instead, we will be paying one of the highest amounts per head of population, second only to Denmark.

I do not know what planet the Deputy is on.

I know what planet I am on.

I genuinely do not. I mean this sincerely. Our membership of the European Union is not about being good boys or bad boys. It is about being part of a single market and an economic union that have brought great benefits to the country in terms of jobs and the modernisation of our economy. This deal is a good deal for Ireland. The proportion of the multi-annual financial framework for the Common Agricultural Policy has gone up to 31% as opposed to 28% in the last programme. When you take the United Kingdom's exit from Europe and the huge contribution it was making, that is a very significant outcome for Ireland. We are now net contributors, but for almost 50 years of our membership we were net recipients. I say it was up to €40 billion or €50 billion. I do not have the exact figure - I will get it for the Deputy - but it is not about that, actually.

It is about that.

No. As far as I am concerned, it is about us being able-----

No, hold on. We will not survive on our own as an island in isolation. We survive and create wealth in Ireland through making products and providing services that provide solutions to the global economy and the global society-----

Thank you, Taoiseach. The time is up.

-----enabling us to sell the beef, the milk, the software and hundreds of other services and goods that make Ireland the economically developed country that it has been over the extent of its membership of the European Union.

The Taoiseach will be aware that, during the previous Dáil, the Government supported the restructuring of the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, and the Citizens Information Board. This was very contentious and opposed by many Deputies. I heard this morning that two MABS offices - on Francis Street in Dublin 8 and in Crumlin - have been told that they will be closed from Friday and will have to move to Tallaght. Moving what are important services for people out of their areas is serious. Do other Deputies know whether the same is happening in their areas? We did not have a clue that this was happening. I would like the Taoiseach to intervene and find out what is going on with local MABS services or could the relevant Minister check this out? It is outrageous.

First, I would like to get an evaluation of how that structural change of MABS has worked out in terms of broader services generally. I have got different feedback since it happened. Some was positive when I met in an informal way earlier in the year some people involved in the service.

I cannot get involved in every operational decision of agencies under specific Departments. We will contact MABS to ascertain its rationale for this action and what the intention is.

The intention-----

I call Deputy Ó Murchú.

I wish to raise the HIQA report released yesterday about the overall situation in nursing homes during the Covid-19 outbreak. The report lays out in stark terms how nearly 60% of homes inspected following Covid-19 outbreaks were found to have insufficient infection prevention and control measures, which possibly led to greater tragedy. It speaks of deficiencies in governance and management. It also speaks of the unsuitability of some of the units during the pandemic and their need for upgrading. There were many horror stories from families and staff.

I have spoken to the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, about the testing delays that have become evident in recent days, including at Dealgan House in Dundalk. A few weeks ago, it was able to get Covid-19 test results within five hours. Last week, it took almost 48 hours to get two test results. I am told that prioritised testing facilities that were available to Dealgan House and other nursing homes no longer are. This situation needs to be fixed.

Some of the families who lost loved ones at Dealgan House wish to meet the new Minister for Health. Twenty-two people died in the home during a Covid-19 outbreak. The families want to tell the Minister about the need for a public inquiry to ensure that all problems are arrested and the questions of families and management are answered. I would like the Taoiseach to add his voice to this call and ensure there is action to deal with the problems listed in the HIQA report. Will he address the preparations for a second wave-----

Time is up, Deputy, please.

-----and the radical reform that is clearly needed in the nursing home sector?

As I said earlier, the expert review report on nursing homes in the context of the pandemic will be on the Minister's desk next week. We will take steps to have that published and debated. That report will deal with the wider nursing home situation. In terms of the testing, if the Deputy has spoken to the Minister I am sure he will follow-up with him on the specifics of the query raised in respect of Dealgan House.

The Taoiseach will be well aware of the tragic killings that have occurred in the Coolock Garda district. He will also be aware from his time as Minister for education that it is also an area that has the lowest progression to further and higher education in the country. Former assistant commissioner, Mr. Jack Nolan, is completing an evaluation of what needs to be done to address the complex issues in that area. I warmly welcome the commitment in the programme for Government that the approach taken in the north inner city will be expanded to other such areas because it is far more than a policing issue. Will the Taoiseach and his office play a lead role in co-ordinating the work on such a response in areas like Coolock so that as occurred in the north inner city it will be led from the centre of Government?

The Deputy makes a very constructive suggestion. I will work with others. It is an important point in terms of the development of community initiatives in north and east Dublin, similar to the former RAPID programmes. In other words, we need a multidisciplinary, concentrated approach to areas that have experienced significant disadvantage, in particular areas where there are low levels of school completion. We must attack this issue in a combined way involving agencies and Departments. I will examine the Deputy's proposal.

On the proposal which the Deputy put forward last week on the Order of Business in regard to the utilisation of the public service in terms of internships, I brought it to the heart of Government to the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform in the context of the stimulus programme. I agree with the Deputy that we need to give more opportunities to young people in the current crisis in respect of both the public service and the private sector.

On the Defence (Amendment) Bill 2020, which is promised legislation, is it intended to addressed the issues of manpower levels within the Defence Forces in that context of that Bill or is it intended to do it separately in anticipation of that Bill?

We hope that the commission provided for in the programme for Government will be set up in the autumn. We will not be wasting time in terms of moving to help the Defence Forces to recruit and retain staff more effectively. As Taoiseach, it is a matter about which I am very concerned and I know the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence is concerned about it as well. We intend to take a proactive approach to the matter.

On page 46 of the programme for Government there is a commitment to ensure that work is done with the HSE to improve care. Currently, adults with disabilities are unable to attend care services. There was much shock and dismay among many families last week when they heard from witnesses at the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response that services may not resume until next year. I ask the Taoiseach to prioritise this matter. Adults with disabilities have regressed significantly and they have been disrupted. We need to make sure that the services are put back in place as soon as possible.

That is a very fair point. I will examine the issue. Keeping people out of those services for that length of time is not, in my view, the optimal response. We have to do something in that regard.

On page 114 of the programme for Government there is a commitment to tackle inequality in the third level sector based on socioeconomic background, but the income assessment criteria for the SUSI grant is based on 2019. Many families have seen huge changes in their financial situation since the start of this year, which the Taoiseach will appreciate. There are workers without employment for the first time in their lives. The assessment criteria does not correspond with the reality of people's lives and they need to be reviewed.

I would also like the Taoiseach to address an anomaly in the system. The case of Ms X in Laois is one example. She is a married woman of 23 years of age who set up home with her partner, now her husband, for five a half years and lives totally independent of her parents but she is still being assessed as a dependant child despite having supplied reams of information to show that she is living independently with her husband. There is an anomaly in the system that the departmental officials need to address.

It is a good Department. In terms of education, generally speaking my own philosophy has always been that we should be as flexible as possible to enable people complete their education because that is good for the person and for society. I cannot comment on the specifics of the case mentioned but I will have it examined.

I take on board the Deputy's comments in regard to the assessment for SUSI in terms of previous income. On higher and further education, last night the Government agreed a package of measures to assist students, particularly those on low incomes, in terms of participating in third level education in the next session, particularly in terms of access to technology. We are doubling the disadvantage grants scheme which universities administer for students who are in financial difficulty. We are doing it this year in particular because of the Covid impact on so many families.

The programme for Government promises to improve the lives of people with disabilities and for the most important people in their lives, their carers. Next Wednesday, from 12.30 p.m. as part of the Enough is Enough campaign, carers will be outside the Convention Centre calling for just that. Concretely, they will be calling for the reopening of adult day services. All around the country carers are screaming out that they are physically and mentally exhausted but they feel that nobody is listening. Will the Government act on its promises? Will it publish definite guidelines for the prompt reopening of home support hours, respite services, adult day services and mental health services? Will it recognise the huge efforts of carers which save the State over €10 billion per annum and raise carer's allowance and carer's benefit? Will it abolish the means-test for carer's and suspend reviews of carer's allowance? Will it ensure that people with disabilities can legally demand their rights by immediately commencing the ratification of the optional protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities?

I call Deputy Martin Kenny on the same issue.

I want to raise with the Taoiseach the issue of adults with intellectual disabilities who are at home with elderly parents who, in many cases, are unable to cope. This situation has continued through the pandemic. Many people around the country are at their wits end in regard to what to do. Day care services and respite care services have been taken away. Across my constituency, and I am sure across the country as a whole, carers and families who are caring for adults in such circumstances need to see efforts being made by Government to put these services back in place immediately.

I call Deputy Cronin on the same issue.

Go raibh maith agat. I want to raise the promised legislation for people living with intellectual disabilities. Under the previous Government these became the new dispossessed. We cannot allow that to become permanent. Mothers in north Kildare have contacted me about their children with intellectual disabilities, the lack of respite services and unacceptable delays in vital health services. The Government signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities two year ago. Since then, that signature has been moot and mute. The programme for Government promises to ratify the optional protocol, which would mean that parents with children with intellectual disabilities would not have to go to war every day with the State. It would allow them to vindicate their children's rights. When will the Government ratify the optional protocol?

The Deputies asked a number of questions. On the impact of Covid-19, it has been devastating on many families and sectors. Our schools closed for a number of months as a result of Covid-19 and adult disability services also effectively closed in terms of people being able to attend day centres and various other services.

As we know, congregated numbers in indoor settings are problematic in respect of Covid. That said, we have to work to make such services and centres available to adults with intellectual disabilities. I will talk to the Ministers involved and to the service providers to see what the challenges are in enabling the provision of some level of services for those who were affected by this. That is a fair point and it is important to say.

In terms of children and special needs in general, and especially in respect of special education, to respond to Deputy Cronin's point, it is very important that we avoid adversarial approaches. Children, as a right, should have the appropriate school placements available to them and the proper planning in advance should take place. I am working with the Minister for Education and Skills in that regard. In my view, we must introduce a greater degree of advocacy for the child within the system as it operates.

The programme for Government references unsewered rural villages. The project for one such village - Broadford, County Clare - is shovel ready. The land has been acquired and the project fully designed but it has sat on the shelf for many years. At a time when we have had absurd discourse on the environment, stating that dairy herds are major polluters, there are still rural villages like Broadford where when a toilet is flushed, at best it goes into an antiquated septic tank, while at worst, it goes into a gravel soak pit. It all ends up in the drinking water supply that the same people drink in the evenings when they turn on the tap. I ask that the development of sewerage in such villages be expedited over the lifetime of the Government. It should give us the 21st-century, or even the 20th-century, sewerage infrastructure we desperately need.

The programme for Government commits to investing in new sewerage schemes in small towns and villages. Which Department will lead the development of these schemes? Will it be the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government or the Department of Rural and Community Development? A lead Department needs to put this scheme in place so that villages and towns throughout County Clare, such as Broadford, Labasheeda, Cooraclare or Carrigaholt, can get the sewerage schemes they deserve.

Deputy Crowe stated the project he mentioned is shovel ready. The whole idea of the stimulus plan, along with more structural issues, is to try to get as much activity going in the next six to nine months as possible. A capital programme will be attached to the stimulus plan. I hope that projects of the kind the Deputies both identified could be accommodated in that plan. That will involve the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Irish Water, the local authority and whoever else is involved to get it going. We want projects of that kind dealt with. To be frank, it is awful that that situation still obtains in Broadford. It is not good enough and, therefore, we must do everything possible to end that situation and to deal with it. Hopefully, the announcement of the capital element of the stimulus plan will be an opportunity to do that.

This is my first time putting a question to the Taoiseach since his appointment and I wish him the very best for the future. I raise a commitment in the programme for Government to expanding the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme. One issue that has arisen recently is that some people who are on the wage subsidy scheme or the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, have had their applications stalled. I was contacted by a man in Kerry who had almost fully gone through the process but he has now been told he will have to be back at work for three months before the process can continue, even though he is already back at work. A woman told me she had a really difficult time getting qualification for the scheme because she had to jump through unimaginable hoops from the lender of last resort, the State. She had no outstanding loans, a full-time job and a part-time job, yet she still found it very difficult. Will the Taoiseach give priority to the matter, particularly where it relates to the PUP and the wage subsidy scheme?

Over the past few years in the Seanad, I raised the issue of the threshold to qualify for local authority housing lists. The Taoiseach will be aware that in almost ten years, there has been no review. I ask him to have the review carried out; every local authority in Ireland needs it.

To respond to Deputy Griffin, that issue has been raised with us and the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform are alive to it. There are challenges in regard to the PUP and the wage subsidy scheme because the issue of the security of jobs is a consideration. As for the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme, I would like to think we could examine it in detail in terms of the potential of the individual to get over this hurdle in their current status, whether on the PUP or, more particularly, the wage subsidy scheme.

To respond to Deputy Murnane O'Connor, I will ask the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to review that. The Deputy is a long-standing campaigner on that issue and on the fact that the threshold has not changed in ten years. I will follow that up.

The programme for Government commits to: "Strengthen the regulatory and enforcement mechanisms with regard to short-term lettings." As I am sure the Taoiseach will know, the vast majority of short-term lets in the State are not compliant with the Government's regulations and the level of enforcement from local authorities is very low. Will he commit in the legislative programme to strengthening the regulations for short-term letting platforms and, in particular, to introducing a specific planning offence to fine platforms that advertise non-compliant properties?

On 6 July, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, introduced a blanket ban on the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme whereby nobody in receipt of the wage subsidy scheme can draw down the loan until three months afterwards, contrary to what the Taoiseach has just told the House.

I will examine the proposals the Deputy has put forward for short-term lettings and for strengthening enforcement and sections relating to the advertising of lettings that are not compliant with the regulations.

That concludes Questions on Promised Legislation. A total of 23 Deputies were not reached today. If I carry forward those names to tomorrow, which I am quite prepared to do, I ask please that nobody else indicate tomorrow because it is highly unlikely that we will get to him or her.