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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 16 Sep 2020

Vol. 997 No. 4

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

May I insist here that Members ask one question for no more than one minute and that there be no more than one minute of an answer?

Two weeks ago, I raised the issue of proposed increases in utility prices and I set out for the Taoiseach the considerable pressure that workers and their families are under. I asked the Taoiseach at that time to intervene with Electric Ireland regarding its forthcoming price hike and he stated that he would do so. I also asked the Taoiseach to put a stop to the 100% hike in the public service obligation, PSO, levy levied by the Government because this will also have the effect of increasing prices. I wrote to the Taoiseach seeking an update on what actions he has taken on these matters but I have not received a reply. Will the Taoiseach tell me now whether he has engaged with Electric Ireland as promised, will there be a stop put to the proposed price hikes forthcoming in October, and if he has withdrawn or will withdraw his proposed hike in the public service levy?

I spoke to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and was also in touch with Electric Ireland. By the way, in terms of energy pricing more generally, the cost over the past six months came down.

In terms of the renewable energy piece, the Government remains committed to that. That is where we have to go as a country. Our over dependance on fossil fuels-----

Did Electric Ireland tell the Taoiseach that?

Our over dependance on fossil fuels will be a continuing catalyst into the future for an increase in prices.

Today, outside the Dáil we met members of the families who have been affected by cyberbullying and online harassment. In my 15 years in politics, it was certainly one of the most emotional scenes I have ever seen. We heard from Jackie Fox, who lost her daughter, Nicole. We heard from the O'Neill family, who lost their daughter and granddaughter, Mia. I knew Mia.

I am asking the Taoiseach genuinely to park the politics and to work with us to implement Deputy Howlin's Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017 in relation to bullying and cyberbullying. Everyone in this House needs to learn about and deal with this. It is called Coco's law in honour of Nicole. Deputy Lawless, from the Taoiseach's own side, has been quite supportive of it and it is in the Government's list for the programme for Government.

We have had this Bill on the Order Paper since 2017. The Government is supportive of it but we have not been able to get Government amendments to the Bill. Can we bring this forward and get it dealt with before Christmas so that no more children, or, indeed, adults, are affected? People cannot be prosecuted for online abuse.

First, I thank the Deputy for raising what is an important heartbreaking issue for the families he met earlier and on behalf of whom he has spoken. The wider issue of bullying, in particular, cyberbullying, is doing a great deal of damage to people and undermining people's self-esteem, self-confidence and sense of well-being, and we need a far more robust legislative response to that. I certainly will work with the Deputy. I will ask Government to engage with Deputy Howlin on his legislation to see if we can progress it.

Last week, I raised the issue of varying restrictions in maternity hospitals across the country. After an exchange with the Minister of State and the HSE management for the Cork-Kerry region, I am even more unsure about how the decisions are being made. The Minister stated it is based on an individual hospital and the HSE stated it is based on the region the woman is in. I wonder which is it. The programme for Government commits to excellence in maternal healthcare but at present women in some areas are going through labour alone. It is a geographical lottery and we have no idea why. We cannot allow anyone else to go through this unless it is absolutely necessary. We urgently need a nationwide review of restrictions in maternity hospitals and the decision-making process needs to be transparent. Will the Taoiseach commit to this before more women have to go through this?

I call Deputy Mattie McGrath on the same matter.

I want to raise this issue. It has been hugely traumatic. There is no mention of this in the Government's five-point plan. Pregnant mothers going to hospital is supposed to be a joyous occasions, involving the scans and everything else. All through their pregnancy, in the vast majority of cases, the partners or husbands have not been allowed in.

We have heard of some harrowing cases where, unfortunately, issues and difficulties have occurred with stillbirth and the loss of a baby. It is hugely traumatic for the mothers concerned to be on their own without having a partner, a mother, a sister, a sibling or anybody with them. It is shocking. There must be some compassion in the Government's roadmap for these mothers who find themselves in that situation. It needs to be dealt with.

First, I fully empathise with what the Deputies are saying. Obviously, public health advice has been the key influencer of this situation along with risk management in specific hospitals and locations. However, I take the point that the public health advice in this area should apply nationwide.

Is it regional, hospital by hospital or nationwide at present?

I would instinctively think it should be nationwide but it may be that in different hospitals one has different settings and different risks. In some maternity centres, they may have different practices, etc. I will engage with the acting Chief Medical Officer and HSE on this. It is difficult and traumatic for people. It should be a celebratory moment for many couples. It is a fundamental moment in life.

When people can attend a wedding with 49 other people, they cannot be with their partner.

We cannot have a conversation.

As the Deputy will be aware-----

The Taoiseach's time is up.

-----in the earlier stages of the pandemic there were significant restrictions on people visiting hospitals which was difficult for them.

In the upcoming Brexit legislation, how will the Government deal with the Dublin regulation, formally known as the Dublin III Regulation? The reason I ask is that a gentleman, Lehlohonolo Kalele, who is a citizen of Soweto and who is at present studying occupational safety and health in UCD will be deported, as of Saturday, back to Britain. There are other individuals in the same position. If he is deported via Britain, he will be deported back to Soweto. Obviously, this causes a conundrum for the Government in relation to the Brexit legislation, particularly around the Dublin III Regulation. Obviously, Mr. Kalele wants to stay in this country. He wants to contribute, like many people who seek asylum here. How will the Taoiseach tackle that conundrum?

First, the Deputy might send us the details of the individual case.

There are set processes and procedures for this. It is something that will have to be considered in our overall comprehensive Brexit planning. Invariably the decisions in these asylum cases are what is more fundamentally at issue. The Deputy says this person is due for deportation on Saturday. That clearly arises from consideration of his asylum application, that seems to be the difficulty. I ask the Deputy to forward the details to me.

We cannot have a second bite of the question. I call Deputy Grealish.

Will changes be considered to the employment wage subsidy scheme as announced in the Financial Provisions (Covid-19) Bill, specifically for businesses involved exclusively in tourism, travel agents, gift shops and the chauffeur industry? These are small niche industries that have been decimated by the pandemic. They urgently need support to survive to the end of 2021. The new employment wage subsidy scheme has been designed for companies that have lost 30% of turnover, but businesses such as travel agencies, gift shops and chauffeur services have reported losses of up 100% of turnover since March. These businesses will not be in a position to top up the employment wage subsidy scheme leaving employees with €203 a week, the same as job seeker's benefit. This is not sustainable or realistic. I ask the Taoiseach to look at tourism in more detail and introduce specific support for companies that are not even trading at 30% of turnover.

It is a very difficult situation for certain sectors, particularly in hospitality and tourism. Travel agents are one sector which has had a collapse in revenue and income more generally. The Government took a decision to continue and extend the wage subsidy scheme to April of next year and there will be ongoing monitoring of the impact of that extension on certain jobs and enterprises. The Government is also looking at sectors which, because of Government mandate arising from public health advice, are not in a position to keep going now or to be viable. We are looking at those sectors as well.

I raise the matter of matches and games and the capacity of stadiums. I understand that we have to reduce the risk and that it is a balancing act but the rules set out that 100 may attend matches outside Dublin and in a stadium of over 5,000 capacity, up to 200 can attend. That is less than 1% capacity, that is one person seated where there is capacity for 100. At the same time, we allow 50 to 100 people for indoor gatherings. There are stadiums such as O'Moore Park in Portlaoise and O'Connor Park in Tullamore which have capacity of over 25,000. The problem relates to before and after matches, with people congregating and getting people through turnstiles. However, some stadiums have several turnstiles and several ways in and out. I ask that this be revisited, as well as for grounds with smaller capacity.

I know the situation about sport. Public health advice on this has been consistent from the beginning. They are very concerned about crowds gathering

It is a capacity of less than 1% at the moment.

Please, there is only a minute for a response.

People have been attacking us all day about confusion, clarity and this that and the other. I know the Deputy is genuine in the position from which he is coming but public health advisors have a very strong view about toing and froing and households mixing in cars travelling to matches and congregating. The plan is to allow 200 in a stadium with over 5,000 capacity. In very large stadiums there is room for engagement between NPHET and the sporting organisations but that is for more significant events. The figure of 200 represents progress.

The Matt Talbot Services announced the closure of the Cara Lodge in Ahiohill, Clonakilty last week with the loss of 27 jobs in west Cork. As well as the loss of these jobs, a much-needed service for young people in west Cork will close. We have never had such a high incidence of mental health issues and substance abuse among our young people and there has never been such a need for this kind of treatment centre. One would never hear of a methadone clinic being closed in Dublin as it would cause massive problems on the streets. Similarly, the closure of Cara Lodge will have a knock on effect and I guarantee the calamity of suicide will increase. That is my worry.

To the best of my knowledge the Taoiseach opened the centre many years ago. I ask him now to intervene to prevent its closure and get the HSE to release the funds to save the service and the 27 jobs.

I did not just open it, as Minister for Health I made sure it happened and I worked with the people involved. The Deputy wrote to me and I read the letter last evening, but the reasons for the closure were not spelled out. I would like to engage with the Deputy on that. The original idea was that it was to be an addiction centre. Traditionally health authorities are against residential-type addiction centres. This centre was originally developed by the Matt Talbot centre which has a non-methadone addiction service. They believe in a different methodology to help people with addiction, and this is meant for very young people in particular, to take them out of very difficult environments to give them a chance and opportunity. I confess that I need to be briefed on the current rationale for its closure. I intend to get the HSE's side of the story.

I raise A Vision for Change and Sharing the Vision. When will there be implementation and a full audit of mental health services in the State. We need to examine protocols when people present to services. This is a particular issue in County Louth, in Dundalk. This Sunday, families are holding a vigil to remember those who died tragically from suicide, including some who died very recently. They are looking for a better system. I would like this audit to take into account psychiatric services at Cross Lanes, in Louth and across the State.

On the local services, the Deputy might forward further details to me. A full audit of mental services is there. Recruitment of personnel at a psychiatric level and in child and adolescent centres is one of the challenges for mental health services.

I referred to the protocols when people present.

There are protocols there and the Mental Health Commission, which I established way back as Minister for Health, is there to provide oversight in terms of best practice and what is good and not so good in our mental health services.

Why must everyone with mental health and disabilities fight for everything tooth and nail? The programme for Government says Ireland should aim to become an international leader in support and care for people with mental health challenges. I agree. In 2019, 421 people died by suicide. Some 10% of the population suffers with some sort of mental health problem. At the end of June, there were 350 children in Meath and Westmeath waiting on appointments to psychology departments, with over 8,000 children awaiting appointments nationally. The services provided for groups caring for these children need more investment. People are three times more likely to die by suicide than road accidents. Of the last budget. the CEO of Mental Health Reform said it was very concerning that the Government had failed to deliver extra services to address the mental health crisis in this country. As the Government prepares the budget, will it put the resources into mental health with the urgency it needs?

I was not in government for the last budget. We were in Opposition and facilitated the budget under a confidence and supply agreement. Consistently under that agreement, we increased resources for mental health.

Notwithstanding that increase in resources, mental health services did not seem to be in a position to convert those resources into recruiting the necessary personnel, both in the child and adolescent centres and more widely across psychiatry. There have been ongoing personnel and staffing issues related to mental health which we intend to tackle under the programme for Government. We also seek to change the narrative about recruitment of qualified personnel to our mental health services and to give stronger supports to non-governmental organisations that are involved in mental health which provide a significant service.

I raise the issue of University Hospital Limerick too. The severe pressure on the hospital from serving the entire mid-west region is evident today. Some 62 patients are lying on trolleys in hospital corridors and management has taken the decision to cancel all elective procedures as a result. That is bad enough in ordinary times but in the Covid scenario that we are now living in, it is utterly unacceptable. I ask that some of the €600 million that was announced yesterday, as we are heading into the winter flu season, would be used to reopen the emergency department in Nenagh for 24 hours a day. This would take pressure off University Hospital Limerick, reducing the overcrowding and decreasing waiting times to be seen by a medical professional. It would allow more efficient operations in the mid-west region. A county the size of ours deserves and needs this.

The €600 million that has been allocated to health is designed to try to alleviate the pressures which Deputy Cahill has outlined, which I acknowledge, especially in Limerick. He has raised issues regarding funding for Nenagh hospital. I will engage with the Minister for Health about this and with the Department and HSE with a view to what can be done in the short term to alleviate these pressures.

The programme for legislation was published and lists 30 Bills to be published in this session. That is two a week. It is quite an ambitious target. On 20 July 2015, Review of the Nursing Homes Support Scheme, A Fair Deal, was published. Following that, it was agreed to draw up a Bill, the nursing home support scheme (amendment) Bill. That has been in gestation for five years. It has been promised that it will be published in this session. Can the Taoiseach indicate if that will be in the early or later part of this autumn session of the Dáil in 2020?

My understanding is that it will be in the later part of this session. I have asked for this Bill to be progressed. It has been committed to for quite a number of years. There seem to be some issues regarding the content and extent of the Bill. I am determined to deal with those issues and get the Bill published and to get it through the House.

Students have been extremely upset in recent days with the downgrading, in many instances, of high-performing students who always had excellent results. They have seen their results being downgraded. This has been extremely upsetting. I know that many other people in this House have been contacted by parents and students. What are the Government, Department and Minister going to do about this? Students and their parents really feel that they have been hard done by and that the structures and methodology have detrimentally affected them and their results. I could not express how sorry I am for those students who put their hopes, aims and work into this over the last years. Due to the pandemic and how it has been addressed by the Government, they feel hard done by.

I thank the Deputy.

Ten seconds. Students have been left on the side of the road because buses are not taking them to their schools. That is in chaos as well.

We can only deal with one item.

The Ceann Comhairle will excuse my indulgence. Thank you.

This week, people have contacted my office about issues relating to grading, similar to my colleague, Deputy Michael Healy-Rae. They have been downgraded from H1s to H2s. I have asked students to give me their results from third, fifth and sixth year. In all cases that my office has received, those do not reflect the grades they have received for their leaving certificate. They have been downgraded by one or two grades. People have been getting grinds and their teachers have written reports to say that they excel and they have been downgraded. They have lost out. One girl has wanted to teach all her life. She is short by four points for teaching because she was downgraded in two subjects.

I understand the very difficult situation for individual students, in having a desire to secure a certain course and a target to get the results to secure it. It is heartbreaking when a student does not get the course. This year in particular, due to Covid-19, there was a unique situation with no physical examinations and a calculated grades programme had to be introduced. As part of that calculated grades programme, standardisation was essential. The experts involved were clear that there was significant grade inflation at the school level, which was expected, over and above what happened in previous years, so the standardisation model was trying to be fair to all schools in that situation. Notwithstanding that, I understand that people will be very upset about what has happened to them in individual situations. I have to be clear and honest with Deputies. It is not possible to unthread that because if one pulls a thread in one area, one risks unravelling the entire edifice.

Page 40 of the programme for Government has a section on supporting our healthcare workers. The Government commits to recruiting additional front-line staff, including speech and language therapists. There are more than 1,000 people waiting for an assessment by a speech and language therapist in Wexford. Some 606 of them have not even had an assessment yet, 460 are awaiting therapy and 179 of them have been waiting for over a year for their therapy. I know that the Covid-19 emergency has slowed down services but this does not excuse people waiting for over a year. We have heard locally that nine speech and language therapists are on maternity leave in Wexford. How will the HSE cover this shortage and when will recruitment start?

There is a clear commitment in the programme for Government about recruitment of speech therapists, occupational therapists and physiotherapists, as well as other disciplines and professions. We hope to do some therapy through the school system by having a greater presence in schools, which is something I have been personally committed to for a long time. I think it is a better model for the development of children in the school setting, working with teachers and other educational professionals. Covid-19 has impacted on our plans and it has clearly drawn staff away from vital services in the early phase of the pandemic to do the testing and tracing that was discussed earlier and to lead that in given locations. That had a consequential negative impact on services.

What about maternity leave?

A replacement should be provided for anybody who is on maternity leave and that should be automatic.

Before the recess, I tabled a motion calling on the Government to extend maternity leave for mothers who had babies during the pandemic, a challenging and difficult time. The Government's amendment stated that it would possibly look at extending parental leave and benefit in the next budget at some unknown time next year, a proposal totally irrelevant to the issue at hand. Earlier this week, I was contacted by a mother who had her baby at the end of April. She has since been suffering with post-natal depression. Both she and her husband are on the front line. Their childminder is in the at-risk group and they have been unable to get any childcare at all. They have no family living close by. What am I supposed to say to this mother and other mothers? At the start of this month, the Government introduced additional unpaid leave. Most families cannot afford to take unpaid leave.

The Taoiseach said on the floor of the Dáil a number of months ago that he would do the right thing on this issue. He has done nothing on this issue. There are mothers asking for his help.

The Government has made a clear decision on that in terms of parental leave and will be bringing in measures as per the Government decision.

This evening at 9.30 p.m. on RTÉ, a programme will be aired that shows incontrovertible evidence that the British state colluded with the killings of hundreds of Irish citizens. It shows in particular the Glenanne gang, some of whom were also members of the security forces. I have spoken to people on the Relatives for Justice committee and they said that the citizens of the North feel abandoned. All the families are asking for is truth and justice with dignity. They are suggesting that the Irish Government needs to do more than just issue statements. They are asking for a visible presence of this State in the North to do much more on legacy issues. They are saying the issue cannot be seen through the prism of party politics. It has to be a human rights issue.

Successive Irish Governments have been very committed to legacy issues in successive agreements that arose out of the Good Friday Agreement. There have been ongoing issues in terms of getting agreement and clarity on those legacy agreements and getting them progressed. Unfortunately those issues continue, notwithstanding the new arrangements and new commitments that were made on all fronts to progress legacy and also in terms of investigation capacity and so on. This pertains to the activities of the Glenanne gang and so on, which are absolutely reprehensible, but also right across the board. In the earlier phases, the historical inquiries team, according to victims I met, at least did some reasonable work in terms of identifying people involved and so on and gave some answers. I think the situation around legacy generally has been one of those issues on which there has been a regrettable lack of progress across the board.

I want to raise the issue of the TB strategy 2030 which is committed to in the programme for Government. Separately, it seems the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has gone ahead and issued correspondence to livestock owners across the country in recent weeks. Farmers are very concerned about this correspondence. They feel it devalues the status of the entire herd. The unsigned correspondence allows them to identify the TB status of other herd owners if they bought cattle from them and it also points out cattle that were in their herd the last time they had reactors and suggests to them that they should be culled. That is even making a statement of confidence in the Department's own test. Was this approved by any Minister with responsibility for agriculture? Can it be revisited so that farmers can have confidence? They are very concerned at the way this TB plan would be published.

I will have to discuss that with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I will ask him to make contact with the Deputy. I am not aware whether he sanctioned that or whether it emerged prior to his arrival as Minister. The Deputy is referring to the TB plan, which suggests a very operational plan developed at operational level. I will engage with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

Hundreds of small plant hire operators and sole traders all over the Twenty-six Counties are about to lose their livelihoods and jobs following Irish Water's decision to tender out the water and sewerage maintenance work to one contractor or company for each county or multiple counties. This decision will only benefit some large multinational companies and will exclude local operators, families and workers who have given massive service over the years to keep the water flowing in our counties. I want to say as well that I am a director of a plant hire company that on occasion carries out work for Irish Water and that is subject to the same vigorous tendering process as every other company.

Can the Taoiseach cast any light on this matter?

Irish Water has taken a decision in terms of its procurement policy and tendering out to one per county. I hear what the Deputy is saying. It has been an ongoing issue with the centralisation of procurement. Even nationally, the centralisation of procurement has actually disadvantaged smaller operators in the regions. I do not interfere in the operations of Irish Water, and nor can I, but I do take the general point. I will enquire of them to see the rationale for the policy and why it is being developed. I will articulate the Deputy's concerns and the concerns of others in the sector who would be impacted by such a decision.