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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 28 Jul 2020

Vol. 996 No. 1

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Last week, we had the debacle around the Government's green list. Its travel advice was, and is, confused and ambiguous and relies on citizens using their best judgment. Personally, I would prefer that nobody travel abroad this year but the fact remains that we have been given advice only, not a firm instruction, much less a legal requirement. Despite this, the Government has taken it upon itself to send officials to our airports seeking out people on the Covid payment who have decided, in their best judgment, to travel. One section of our population is being singled out without notice or warning. On the basis of confused advice, the Government wants to punish and make an example of people who lost their jobs because it closed down the economy to deal with the pandemic.

Many of these are the same people who were excluded from the Government's stay and spend initiative, so they will not be helped to holiday at home. Many had booked and paid for their holidays months ago but, because of the Government's ambiguous travel advice, they may not qualify for a refund and may lose substantial sums of money. In a final insult to these people, they will be penalised if they do travel, even to one of the green list countries. Every which way they turn, they lose.

Will the Taoiseach acknowledge that his Government's travel advice does not have the force of law? Will he accept that the travel advice is confused as to the difference between green and non-green countries and on whether one needs to restrict one's movement on return? Will he accept that the Government has uniquely chosen those who have lost their jobs for punishment should they choose to travel abroad? I want the Taoiseach to accept this is wrong and, more importantly, to reverse this decision.

I understand this decision was incorporated in social welfare guidance early on Monday morning, just 24 hours after the Tánaiste set out his position on RTÉ. The Tánaiste also claimed that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection gets information from the airports. At this morning's meeting of the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response, however, the Dublin Airport Authority categorically denied it collects such information. Its representatives said they had no details as to who collects such data in its facilities. Will the Taoiseach clarify who is collecting this information? On what legal basis is it collected? Will this now stop? This is yet another episode in an unfolding farce.

There is no debacle with regard to the travel advisory, as the Deputy suggested. In sharp contrast to the decisions taken in Northern Ireland by the Deputy's party, the decisions taken in the Republic of Ireland have resulted in some of the most restrictive travel guidance globally. The results of this are there for all to see.

It must be acknowledged by all that the pandemic unemployment payment was an unprecedented and fair response to the Covid-19 emergency. At the height of the emergency, in May, as many as 600,000 people were in receipt of that payment. As the economy has begun to reopen, people have returned to employment and the number claiming the payment has fallen to 287,000. By any yardstick, it was a massive national response.

Deputy McDonald endeavoured to paint the picture that somebody is out to get somebody or that the State has adopted a punitive approach. That is not the position of the Government. It has been anxious to help people who were made unemployed as a result of Covid-19, hence the unprecedented numbers who received this very special payment which the Government has decided to continue until the end of March, albeit at different levels.

The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection has carried out compliance inspections at ports and airports since 2012, as the Deputy is well aware. These continue. The primary purpose of these checks has always been to ensure that social welfare payments are only made to people who reside in the State and who comply with the regulations. Since March of this year, more than 2,000 pandemic unemployment payment claims have been closed as a result of checks carried out at Dublin Airport. The Department has informed me that the vast majority of these cases related to individuals leaving the country permanently rather than holidaymakers. These people no longer live here and are not entitled to this payment so it has been stopped. Most people would say that this must be checked on an ongoing basis. It is also important that this type of thing be dealt with in respect of schemes more widely. The Department is very clear on that.

In the context of the overall picture, we are talking about a handful of cases in which claimants have had their payment suspended because of the changes the Department made in the context of the Government's travel advice. The Government has consistently advised that the safest thing is not to travel. It has not been encouraging or incentivising travel and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection was anxious to ensure the holiday arrangements for recipients of social welfare payments were in accord and alignment with the Government's travel advice.

We are talking about a very small number of the 287,000 who continue to receive the payment.

I thank the Taoiseach.

There is no agenda in terms of endeavouring to penalise any one sector as opposed to another. I recall the former Labour Party leader, Joan Burton, when she introduced the legislation to empower social protection inspections, referred to "the fight against the small number who scam the system", and said it was "important that we address this; otherwise, confidence in the system among ordinary contributors and claimants who only claim what they are entitled to will be eroded." She was referring to those who leave the country, who are not living here and who do not come back. In the ordinary course of those compliance checks, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection says the vast majority of those who lost their payments are people who were not coming back.

I am sure the Taoiseach is not suggesting that those 287,000 recipients of the Covid payment are scamming the system or that they qualify as scammers. I would like him to make that very clear. These are people who have lost work and hope to return to work as soon as they possibly can. They are out of work because we are in the throes of a public health emergency. It is the case that the Government is singling out a section of the population for special and negative attention, because the fact is that there is no penalty, financial or otherwise, for citizens who are not on the Covid payment should they choose to travel to one of the green list countries, yet the Government is saying to all of those citizens who are out of work, through no fault of their own, that they will face a very significant sanction, that being the removal of their single and only source of income. That is a very harsh measure to take.

I thank Deputy McDonald.

It does feel like the Government is picking on a very particular section of the population. The Taoiseach avoided each and every one of my questions, so let me put a very straightforward question to him.

The Deputy's time is up.

An individual in receipt of the Covid payment will be penalised by loss of that payment should he or she travel abroad. Will the Taoiseach tell us when that decision was taken and who decided to change the social welfare guidance? Was it the Tánaiste or the Taoiseach and was it discussed at Cabinet? More to the point, will he tell us if he sees fit to end this ludicrous, farcical and deeply unfair situation?

I thank Deputy McDonald. She is way over time now.

In the first instance, Deputy McDonald should withdraw her inference that I suggested 287,000 people were trying to game the system. I never said that and she knows I did not say it. She should not have attempted to put those words into my mouth. She should disengage from that type of behaviour in here. It is unworthy of her. It does not deal with the issue. She is entitled to raise it but she should not attempt to do what she did.

They were the Taoiseach's words.

It is not right. It is not fair politics. The whole purpose of introducing the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment was to help people through Covid-19. It developed very strong social solidarity. We want to continue to help people in that situation. That is why 600,000 people in the country were on the payment in May and why 287,000 are still on it. I would like the cases of genuine recipients who might not have been aware of this to be reviewed. That is something I would like to do because I do not wish to undermine any individual or take from their legitimate entitlements. It is clear that social protection had to ensure proper compliance for those who are leaving the country for good at the moment, and who are still receiving the Covid payment, in deference to the taxpayer.

I thank the Taoiseach.

A statutory instrument was introduced on 10 July. Statutory instruments do not have to come before the Government and this one did not come before the Government. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection states that it had been saying this in response to numerous queries on and off since early July. That did not seem to capture anybody's attention at the time, including that of the Opposition, bar The Sunday Business Post of last Sunday.

In Roscrea in County Tipperary one issue overshadows all others, namely, the future of the Dean Maxwell community nursing home in the town. This vital 27-bed elderly care residential home and day facility is dying a slow death. The centre is cherished by the people of Roscrea. The management and staff of the nursing home provide an excellent service for the people of the local community. The level and quality of care are acknowledged and appreciated by the people of Roscrea. The facility is an integral part of the fabric of the local community. It is almost 50 years old and no longer meets HIQA standards. It is therefore under threat of closure in 2021. Roscrea is a community-orientated town and its people have fought passionately to save the Dean Maxwell nursing home to allow elderly members of their community to continue living in the locality with which they are familiar.

The current capital spending plan, introduced in 2016 by the then Minister of State, Kathleen Lynch, did a serious injustice by the omission of the Dean Maxwell nursing home. That five-year service plan, endorsed by the HSE, effectively consigns the centre to lose its 25-bed long-stay unit. The nursing home and the people of Roscrea should not be deprived of its long-stay beds. Traditionally, north Tipperary has had a distribution of long-stay beds between Thurles, Nenagh and Roscrea. We had a new unit built in Thurles and a new unit for St. Conlon's in Nenagh is being progressed. The Dean Maxwell home should not be left behind. I request the Taoiseach to ensure the current flawed HSE service plan is reviewed, with the purpose of designing and building a new facility for the Dean Maxwell nursing home in Roscrea.

The Dean Maxwell home is being downgraded step by step and slowly but gradually is moving towards closure, one which is unwritten and by stealth. With the bare minimum of maintenance over the past five years, the HSE knows full well that HIQA will intervene and deem it unfit for purpose. The HSE is a casual bystander awaiting the inevitability of closure. It has done absolutely nothing to offer an alternative solution and seems happy to run down the clock. It is abundantly clear that it is HSE policy to transfer long-stay beds from Roscrea to Nenagh. The blinkered attitude of the estates management section of the HSE towards Roscrea was confirmed by its dismissive response to a proposal to provide alternative accommodation in Roscrea. In a project that required no HSE capital funding, the developer of the primary care centre in Roscrea agreed to adapt plans to incorporate on the same site a purpose-built 40-bed nursing home. This would operate on a lease-back agreement to be managed and run by the HSE. With unprofessional haste and without due consideration, the HSE rejected the proposal. It is unwilling and unable to provide a credible reason for its decision.

As the clock ticks for the Dean Maxwell nursing home, the HSE has failed to guarantee the future of elderly care in Roscrea. I have raised this matter in private with the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly. I request their intervention to find a sensible, practical solution to retain the Dean Maxwell home in Roscrea.

I thank Deputy Lowry for raising with me on Leaders' Questions this issue concerning the Dean Maxwell community nursing unit in Roscrea. As has been said, this is one of a few residential units for the elderly in Tipperary which, as we are all aware, is a very large county covered by two separate HSE areas. Like many community nursing units across the country, the Dean Maxwell unit has a long, proud and reputable history of caring for the elderly community in Roscrea since it opened in 1974. It is a home away from home for 29 older people who cannot live independently. It also provides day services that are open seven days a week and respite services. It is in an older building on a very tight site. The HSE is working closely with HIQA to ensure that standards and services are maintained in the unit. The internal layout is restricting the types of services that can be provided by the unit and the HSE is reviewing the situation on an ongoing basis as part of its service planning for 2021 and beyond.

It is important to state that the unit will continue to be registered with HIQA for the next three years. In its most recent report, HIQA noted that residents spoke extremely fondly of the services and care provided within the unit. As the Deputy alluded to, the NDP has funding to provide a new 50-bed community nursing unit in Nenagh. That does not mean services in the Dean Maxwell nursing home will be reduced as a result. It is important that residential units of this kind are rooted in the communities they serve and that there is local access and utilisation of such facilities.

I take on board what the Deputy is saying. The Government is committed to meeting the wider health needs of older people in Roscrea and north County Tipperary and we are conscious of the demographic pressures. We will need more such facilities in the future not fewer. The Dean Maxwell centre will continue to play its role. I will request that the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, meet Deputy Lowry and other public representatives from County Tipperary to discuss the current and future service needs of the Dean Maxwell unit and any potential options which may be considered into the future.

I appreciate that commitment from the Taoiseach.

There are three options available in Roscrea and I would like some action on them. One is to review the current detailed plan put forward by the development company to combine a new nursing home unit on the same site as the new medical centre. The second option is to use the 3 acre greenfield site owned by the HSE at the rear of Cré House health centre and build a modern, HIQA-compliant community nursing home with a capital funding allocation. The third option is to refurbish and extend the existing building. This option is problematic as the building can only be extended to the front and this would encroach on the adjoining public car park. This car park already overflows at Sunday masses, weddings and funerals. There is also the issue of caring for residents while such work is ongoing.

This is a priority issue for me. It is imperative that the HSE service plan is revised to include Roscrea and it is vital that an elderly care project for Roscrea is included in the new revised plan. I appreciate that the Taoiseach is offering a meeting with the Minister and the representative groups together with public representatives and I hope that we can make some progress on a viable solution at that meeting.

Some refurbishment has been undertaken lately on the unit and more is planned for 2021. I am told the HSE have not received any formal proposal about the new unit being built on the same site as the new primary care centre in Roscrea but I know what the Deputy is saying in that regard. I assure him that the Government is anxious to see the Dean Maxwell centre continue to provide and develop services so it continues to provide a highly-professional and flexible service to older people and their families in Roscrea. It is acknowledged all round that the existing site is exceptionally tight even for an extension. This is the case even when one allows for the local authority's offer of the adjacent car park to facilitate an expansion of the centre but that is problematic as well. A serious look will be taken at this to ensure that there is a viable, sustainable option adopted to deal with the elderly care needs of people in this location.

Under the European Commission's Next Generation EU package, it was proposed that the budget for the EU just transition fund would increase from €7.5 billion to €40 billion over the period 2021 to 2027. The proposed allocations to all member states would then increase as a result. Through a series of parliamentary questions I tabled on this matter, I have been able to establish that as part of this proposed increase the allocation for Ireland was set to jump from €29.9 million to €176 million. We now know this is not going to happen and there is a potential loss of €146 million we will have to do without.

The European just transition fund has in fact been slashed and with it any real prospect of delivering outcomes that can combine the retention and protection of jobs with the goal of protecting our environment. This has been my major concern throughout this entire process. I have said all along that the balance has been entirely wrong for the midlands, especially for the workers and families. Workers with mortgages and young families in County Offaly have been and will continue to be the ones most directly impacted. The vast majority of workers and families I meet now associate the transition process with the prioritisation of vague and aspirational green agendas over the creation of real and sustainable employment and, most importantly, the protection of their livelihoods. Is it any wonder that they think like this? The just transition process was supposed to take place over the period up to 2030 to give everybody a fair chance to adjust. That has been dramatically shortened to just 12 months. Bord na Móna ceased all peat production as part of its enhanced peatland rehabilitation scheme in June after months of legal battles initiated by idealistic environmentalists and a High Court decision to strike down harvesting exemptions provided by the previous Government.

I understand €15 million has been made available under the July stimulus plan for the bog rehabilitation scheme and that the Bord na Móna workers were made aware of this but we need a substantial amount of money, far more than €15 million. Despite all the rhetoric about increasing supports to make the transition process fair and protective of jobs, we have seen practically no evidence that this is happening on the ground. Indeed, there is much frustration among communities in counties Offaly and Laois and in the wider midlands area. An example of this can be seen in the peat and horticultural contractor sector. They invested in new and expensive machinery in the expectation that the 2020 season was progressing, only to be told without any consultation that the harvesting was not going to happen at all. We know from the chief executive of Offaly County Council that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has advised that legislation is required at national level to allow the council to distribute funds that are being provided. This is despite the fact that Offaly County Council is driving the transition process and the just transition commissioner is based in the county.

Does the Taoiseach accept that the entire process is now at risk of descending into complete dysfunction and that it is utterly failing to protect and serve the very communities and jobs it was supposed to help save?

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. At the outset, I wish to address the €146 million that was taken out of the proposed allocation to the rural development fund. As I secured €337 million in alternative funding for agriculture, we more than made up for that particular loss. Furthermore, the Common Agricultural Policy will now have a higher share of the multi-annual financial framework than it otherwise would have had under the pre-existing proposal that came from the Commission.

On the immediate issue of the application of just transition policies and funding to the midlands and to County Offaly specifically, the Deputy can take it that the Government is very focused on this. As she correctly outlined, provision was made in the July stimulus programme for €15 million for peat reclamation. In addition, under the Government's programme and the ring-fenced carbon fund that will be established, specific measures and funding will also be allocated, particularly to the midlands, to provide alternative employment to workers who will be losing jobs on an ongoing basis because of the policy and regulatory changes that have occurred at both domestic and European level entailed by our climate change objectives.

The issues pertaining to peat harvesting have, from a regulatory, planning and decision perspective, been accelerated compared with the original deadlines. As such we are very conscious of the issues and we are prioritising the midlands where allocation of just transition funds are concerned, to create new enterprises and alternative employment. That is why significant funding from the carbon fund will also go toward retrofitting initiatives. There is substantial funding going from the July stimulus programme to retrofitting initiatives to create employment. The midlands will be prioritised for the retrofitting scheme and for other measures to try to create new economic activity in the area. We will be relying predominantly on our own resources for the just transition fund, which will be allocated through both the general carbon fund and Exchequer resources to do everything we possibly can to create, to a large extent, an alternative economy in the midlands in the future and to do so in a phased way.

I thank the Taoiseach for his response and welcome the fact that the midlands will be prioritised. However, I must outline my concerns with the whole just transition process again.

It is not coming together quickly enough and I do not think there is a sense of urgency. The midlands were only recovering from the last recession and then we were hit with this. It is going to have a detrimental effect and I believe we need to be focused on creating a huge number of jobs and not just a handful here and there. When I raised this issue with the Minister, Deputy Ryan, he told me Bord na Móna needed to look at how to diversify to create jobs but it is not Bord na Móna's role to create jobs. It is the Government's role to drive this. IDA Ireland needs to take a more proactive role in helping us in the midlands to ensure job creation takes place quickly.

The just transition process is happening in the larger context of our ambition to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Only last year, a former UK Chancellor of the Exchequer stated the target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 will cost the UK more than £1 trillion. He said that such a cost meant less money would be available for schools, police, hospitals and other areas of public spending. He also warned that the target would render some industries economically uncompetitive without huge Government subsidies. Has any such impact analysis been carried out here? My fear is we are rushing towards environmental objectives where the costs in terms of jobs are being ignored or dismissed.

The Deputy makes fair points and this has to be done in a way that we protect livelihoods and families who are in traditional employments that are under threat because of the inevitable change. We have to accept this change is inevitable but what we must try to do is work with the families, workers and communities involved to make sure it is a fair transition and not an immediate cliff fall event but rather one that is planned and worked through. It has to be in all areas of economic activity.

I will speak to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and perhaps we should set up a meeting with other Deputies in the area. Deputy Cowen has been very strong on the just transition, to be fair, and he has led from the front on ensuring strong policy prioritisation of the just transition fund for Ireland and particularly its application to the midlands. A useful meeting could take place with the Minister in this regard because he is genuine and sincere in wanting to create alternative employment through renewables, peat reclamation and retrofitting. As the Deputy mentioned, IDA Ireland and others, including Enterprise Ireland, have a role to play to support more modern industry in the region and the creation of jobs that are emerging in the digital economy.

Táim ag díriú isteach inniu ag leibhéal Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí ar chúrsaí meabhairshláinte, mar atá déanta agam le breis agus ceithre bliana anuas. Tagraím go háirithe don bhearna atá ann ó thaobh easpa córas monatóireachta neamhspleách san earnáil seo. I could read out the question I raised in December 2019 and all other questions I have raised at the level of Taoiseach on mental health and the absence of services. I have a specific question today and we could save a lot of time if the Taoiseach could just answer it. It is on the urgent need for an independent monitoring body to implement what was A Vision for Change and is now Sharing the Vision: A Mental Health Service for Everyone. If the Taoiseach tells me he is taking this seriously and urgently, gives me a date for its implementation and assures me there will be a broad range of therapists and therapies represented on it, I will thank him and look forward to working with him.

In 1984, the document, Planning for the Future, confirmed our mental health services were not fit for purpose. It showed the way forward. It took until 2006 to get another document, which was A Vision for Change. It is a wonderful document and there is no need to change it, only to update it, as we have had done. Theoretically, it ran out in January 2016. Then we had a review of the literature, which took a few weeks and then months to publish. Then it took another four years of pressure from me and other Deputies from all parties to ask for the publication of the new document, which is Sharing the Vision: A Mental Health Service for Everyone. During all this time, the mental health service is absolutely creaking at the seams.

In Galway over the past few days, at an informal social gathering, I became aware of three suicides in a very short period involving people aged between 15 to 70. We know that hospitals have stopped gathering data on suicides and we have no up-to-date figures. We also know that, in a very short period, 17% of patients admitted to the national spinal injuries unit at the Mater hospital had injuries associated with attempted suicide and there are many other anecdotes and stories. At this point, I do not wish to go into any of them. For four and a half years we have had statements on mental health. I do not want any more statements. Nobody in the psychology or psychiatric fields trusts any Government. They do not trust any politician, including myself, and I accept that. This is why there is a need for an independent monitoring body. To show the Taoiseach's bona fides, let us stop the talking and the statements and confirm that will be set up as a matter of urgency before the end of August.

Admhaím go bhfuil feachtas pearsanta á rith ag an Teachta maidir leis an gceist seo agus go bhfuil sí ag obair go dian dícheallach ar son daoine atá ag baint seirbhís síos ón tseirbhís sláinte. Aontaím leis an chuid is mó de céard atá ráite aici. Táim taobh thiar de straitéis na Roinne agus laistigh de sin, táim taobh thiar den phlean chun bord neamhspleách a chur i bhfeidhm chun scrúdú a dhéanamh ar pholasaithe agus dul chun cinn polasaithe Sharing the Vision.

A national implementation and monitoring body or commission should be established. The Mental Health Commission is such a body, which I established myself legislatively quite some time ago. It has always had an independent approach, which is the ideal approach to mental health services, but I take the Deputy's point that it is more on the side of regulating and monitoring existing services with regard to whether they are in conformity with the law. It seems to me that funding has not been an issue for mental health in recent years but the identification and recruitment of qualified personnel seems to have been an issue that has bedevilled the health service and that the health service has found it very difficult to deal with in psychiatry, and child and adolescent psychiatry in particular and dealing with young people.

In discussing this with regard to the programme for Government, we said we have to utilise the NGO and voluntary sectors in tandem and try to integrate them with the statutory services and, perhaps, develop a broader canvas in the utilisation of psychologists, therapists and multidisciplinary teams. My personal view is the more we can situate mental health services in the community, with access to local multidisciplinary teams, the more effective the outcomes will be.

A barometer of success is having less of a need for acute services. There will always be a need for acute services but if they are full or have high occupancy it is reflective of a dearth of resources and productivity in community care. This is the philosophy we should work towards and make sure there is wide provision. I will go back to the Minister for Health and come back to the Deputy on the establishment of a national independent body to oversee the implementation of Sharing the Vision: A Mental Health Policy for Everyone.

I have been monitoring this over the last two to three years in the context of the confidence and supply agreement in which we put a priority on mental health, but all we heard back from the health service was about an inability to recruit psychiatrists and personnel for the child and adolescent services and hence an ongoing lack of key personnel.

What has bedevilled mental health services is that language does not mean anything. I have asked for confirmation of when the independent monitoring body will be established. The Mental Health Commission has a completely different function. Indeed, when it produced its annual report it was absolutely damning regarding the absence of specific treatment plans, care plans, unsuitable buildings and so forth. My opinion and the Taoiseach's opinion do not matter anymore. We have had A Vision for Change, Sharing the Vision: a Mental Health Policy for Everyone and Planning for the Future. The common denominator in all of that is the move out of the institutions. We are beyond that. The common denominator is that we must have an independent monitoring body. That body sat for two three-year periods and it did such a good job that the Government abolished it. At this point, the Government must re-establish the independent monitoring body, and let statements in the Dáil be about whether that body is doing its job or not and what resources it needs to do it.

There are delayed discharges in Galway city. The last time I checked there were four, which means four people were in psychiatric units who should not have been there. Any Deputy here can add to this. I am asking for an independent monitoring body. On what date will it be set up with a broad range of therapists' representatives on it?

I do not have a date for that right now, but I indicated to the Deputy that I will support its establishment and talk to the Minister for Health about it. Equally, I believe the Deputy's voice matters. Every Deputy's voice matters. We have to keep at this. We can set up the independent implementation monitoring body to monitor the implementation of this, but we cannot be blind to certain constants in the mental health service. There have been certain positives as well that must be acknowledged. The establishment of the child and adolescent units was effective, in terms of the facilities and so forth, in reducing the number of children and teenagers in adult facilities, although there are still too many. When no child is in an adult facility we will be satisfied. There has been some progress, but the problem has been the recruitment of personnel, including in the child and adolescent services. We must tackle that collectively, and if we do not get particular personnel we must work on alternatives to that. There is no point in keeping our heads in the sand either and just passing it over to some independent implementation body. This must be ongoing. The recruitment of key personnel is a problem that is not going away. That is where I wish to focus our attention, in terms of ensuring we can fill the gaps in the service at present which are leaving the people who need the services short.

That concludes Leaders' Questions. We will proceed to the Order of Business.