Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

We are moving to questions on promised legislation. Some 26 Deputies have indicated their wish to speak and they each have one minute to ask one question..

Yesterday, I raised with the Taoiseach the very real sense of abandonment that citizens with disabilities and their families, carers and service providers feel. I asked him to commit to ring-fencing the necessary funding to ensure that services get back up and running to capacity. The Taoiseach cited, of course, the Covid-19 protocols, which I recognise. More importantly, the services, the sector, the families and the individuals with disabilities themselves recognise that those protocols have to be abided by and respected. However, that means the money has to be committed. The winter plan is to be published and the Taoiseach needs to make a commitment now in respect of that necessary funding. The Disability Federation of Ireland states that €120 million is required. I would like the Taoiseach to put people’s minds at ease, bring clarity and commit to ring-fencing and delivering that funding.

Funding will be allocated for the resumption of adult disability services in the winter initiative. There has been considerable investment in and allocation of resources to education for special needs assistants and support for the return of children with special needs to education and to schools across the board in September and, likewise, for the resumption of adult services. There have been constraints with regard to the degree to which those services have been restored.

Not all of them were financial; some related to the impact of Covid-19.

Last week, I raised the issue of the flu vaccine. I would like an update because there is serious concern among all GPs and also among many sectors of society. There are pharmacies advertising the flu vaccine online but when one fills in the form, one cannot get it. They say one will not be able to get it this year if one is not in one of the priority groups, and we all know who the priority groups are. What is the position regarding the volume of vaccine we will be getting? I have raised this issue for many months. It was flagged quite early that we needed to ensure we had the supply coming in. Where are we at as regards the supply? How will it be managed out to the healthcare professionals? Over what timespan will we have the vaccine this year because we are up against a deadline now immediately and given non-Covid versus Covid, the Taoiseach and I both know that the vaccine is critical.

The Deputy will be aware that there have been issues in the manufacturing, delivery and shipment of the vaccine to Ireland. Some has arrived and is being distributed. More is on the way and by the end of this month, there should be significant additional supplies. It is beyond the control of Government and the State in terms of the issues that apply here.

We know that when it comes to accessing public healthcare, cost is a major barrier. Sláintecare identified that as a major issue that needed to be addressed to achieve fairness. Four measures were announced in the budget, which would have been small steps along the way in this regard. They were to reduce prescription charges, improve the threshold for the drugs payment scheme, raise the income limits for medical cards for those over 70, and extend free GP care for six to eight year-old children. Those four measures were to take effect from July. It did not happen. Why did it not happen? When will the Taoiseach honour the promises he made?

Those measures were announced and they are still actively being pursued. In respect of the reduction in prescription charges for those over 70, that came through Cabinet in July. The Deputy can take it that there will be positive developments on those fronts.

The programme for Government refers to the migrant crisis in the Middle East and taking an approach with human rights at its core. I want to raise a specific case with the Taoiseach the details of which I am happy to send to him. It is a man who is an Irish citizen. He was born in Iraq. He fled Mosul in Iraq, after ISIS had taken over and after they murdered his father and other close family members for refusing to co-operate. He is an Irish citizen in Ireland at this stage but his mother is effectively in legal limbo in Turkey with no documents and is faced with going back to Iraq. In brief, the mother of an Irish citizen whose husband was murdered by ISIS is faced with being forced back to Iraq and we are asking the Government to intervene on a humanitarian basis to allow her to be reunified with her son.

If the Deputy could forward the details of the case to me, I will pursue it.

I call Deputy Denis Naughten.

A Cheann Comhairle, it is Seán Canney.

Do I look like Denis? I ask the Taoiseach the Government's plans for bringing forward the legislation on the local property tax. When does the Government intend to bring the new homes currently exempt from local property tax into the system? Will he give the date that this legislation will be brought forward?

The Minister for Finance has indicated that he is giving that further consideration. It is being pushed out to next year. A lot of work has to be done yet in respect of that issue. That is the current status. We are looking to next year before anything happens in that respect.

I ask the Taoiseach if he would visit Tipperary town and meet the task force led by Alison Harvey and representatives of Jobs for Tipp and March for Tipp because the congestion in the town is chronic. It needs an outer relief road or an in between road before we get the motorway from Limerick to Waterford, which is also badly needed, on to the Port of Rosslare, especially in these times of Brexit. I ask the Taoiseach to visit the town to see for himself the excellent work being done by the task force and talk to its members and the other groups that are collaborating and working hard to try to improve the situation in Tipperary town.

All the Deputies from Tipperary have alerted me to the situation in Tipperary town and the challenges being faced, from socioeconomic challenges to education. I certainly will engage with those issues and work with all the Deputies to see how best we can pursue them.

I call Deputy Chris Andrews.

I am sorry, a Cheann Comhairle. I was not sure where I was on the list. Sometimes I am never sure where I am.

Before the summer recess I raised the serious health concerns of an 11-year-old scoliosis patient, Sophie Redmond, with the Taoiseach. Sophie is in need of urgent spinal surgery but she also desperately requires surgery on her knees. At the time, the Taoiseach mentioned the gravity of the situation and said he understood the time-sensitive nature of it. Sophie is no closer now to getting her surgery than when I raised the matter before the recess. I ask the Taoiseach not to forget about scoliosis patients and children such as Sophie Redmond. Will he make sure that somebody contacts her parents to ensure that her surgery, and surgeries similar to that, are carried out as a matter of urgency?

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. We are very concerned, particularly in terms of scoliosis or other urgently-needed surgery, that it would be available to children. Covid-19 impacted on paediatric care as it also did on adult care. I am not sure of the clinical context here but I will examine this and determine the current position in terms of the delays.

I have been informed that in my town of Cashel the public were without an ambulance service for a number of nights recently. I have been told that this is because ambulance crews were not available, that at one stage the service was covered by a sole practitioner and that ambulance shifts were being dropped on a regular basis around the county. On 17 September, there were no crews in Cashel. On 18 September, there were no crews in Cashel or Tipperary town. For five out of ten nights recently, Cashel did not have any cover. That is scandalous. That clearly contradicts the commitment in the programme for Government to increase the capacity in the national ambulance service and expand community first responder schemes. Is the Taoiseach aware of this happening across the country? Can we get some information on the reason this is the case, how often it is happening in my county and what is being done to address it?

On the same issue, will the Taoiseach make a statement on why ambulance drivers and paramedics have not been allowed join a union of their own choosing?

We can only have one question.

Overall, since reforms were introduced some time ago, the national ambulance service nationally has been an effective service. It has been particularly effective during Covid-19 in terms of the work ambulance personnel have done on behalf of the State. I certainly will engage with the service and the HSE on the points the Deputy raised in respect of Cashel and follow up on that.

I want to raise an ongoing issue, of which the Taoiseach will be well aware. It relates to Aer Lingus employees who are consistently being blocked from receiving their social welfare entitlements. It is a very serious situation where workers in this State who pay PRSI to ensure they can access social welfare entitlements when they need it are being blocked from doing so at the very time they need it. At first Aer Lingus was not signing the UP80 forms. It is now issuing letters instead of signing the UP80 forms. Will the Taoiseach intervene when we come to a situation where nobody in this State should ever be denied their entitlements at this time?

First, nobody should be denied entitlements to social protection. These are universal entitlements across the State. That is the position.

Yesterday, the pandemic unemployment payment was cut for thousands of people who lost their jobs as a result of Covid. This morning, we hear that the Low Pay Commission will be recommending an increase of 10 cent per hour to the minimum wage. The workers in question were deemed to be essential when Covid first hit and they continue to work under very difficult circumstances to keep the State running. Next week, Deputies are going to get another pay hike, of 2%, which is nearly €2,000. This is a real kick in the gut for the people who had their pandemic unemployment payment cut It is a real kick in the gut for those low-paid employees who will see an increase to the minimum wage of a mere 10 cent. I, like all Sinn Féin Deputies, will not accept that pay hike.

I thank the Deputy. Time is up.

May I just finish on this point? There is a perception that some politicians are standing on the backs of these low-paid employees to stick their snouts in the trough. What is the Taoiseach going to do? Will he stop the pay hike for all politicians next week?

Deputy, please. You are taking your own colleagues' time. I call Deputy O'Reilly.

Ms Patricia King of ICTU and Mr. Gerry Light of Mandate have been left with no option but to walk away from the Low Pay Commission. As the Taoiseach has said, the commission is not a arm of the Government. The representatives know that. They have walked away because they could not achieve at the table the minimum increase they required, of 2%. That was not a target; it was their floor. They could not even achieve that. My question is simple: does the Taoiseach propose to legislate for a meaningful increase in the minimum wage for workers or is he content to stand here, give them a round of applause and tell them to take that to Tesco and try to buy their food and groceries with it? These people have brought us through the pandemic. They are essential workers. The one thing the pandemic has done was give us an opportunity to re-evaluate the exact meanings of "front-line worker" and "essential worker". When we are talking about these workers, we are talking about cleaners and people who work in retail, the supply chain, hospitality and accommodation. Many of them have lost their jobs.

The Deputy's time is up.

They are on the minimum wage that has been set by the Government and they want to know whether the Taoiseach, as Head of Government, intends to legislate for a meaningful increase. He does not need to wait for a report from the Low Pay Commission; he can actually do it now.

Does Deputy Barry wish to speak on the same matter?

Yes. I should have swung by the canteen on the way to the Dáil Chamber just now. I could have bought myself a packet of peanuts to hold it up in the air and ask the Taoiseach whether it is what he is going to offer low-paid workers in the budget. There is a recommendation of less than 1% from the Low Pay Commission. We are talking about workers who played a key role in getting this country through the lockdown earlier this year. I would like to hear from the Taoiseach a guarantee that an insulting increase of 1% will not even be considered by the Government and that the national minimum wage will be increased by considerably more than that.

All Deputies know the Low Pay Commission is an independent commission. Every Deputy in this House supports low-paid workers. The last five recommendations have been implemented by the Government. That is the whole reason behind having ICTU, unions and employers together on the commission. As has been said, ICTU was not in a position to accept the recommendation of 10 cent. It wanted a minimum increase of 20 cent.

The State's intervention in supporting workers has been unprecedented. Over 750,000 workers are now on one State support or other, including the pandemic unemployment payment. Three hundred and fifty thousand workers are being supported by the wage subsidy scheme. This is never acknowledged at all but it is an important State intervention and a necessary one because of the pandemic.

On Deputy Brady's point, I have heard before about Sinn Féin Members not taking their salaries. For years, the party has said its members would only take the average industrial wage.

I am talking about the pay hike next week.

It was revealed subsequently that some Sinn Féin Deputies took the full Dáil wage and the Exchequer never benefited from it.

With the greatest of respect, this is about people on low pay.

I just want to make the point-----

This is about low earners.

Deputy Brady raised an issue-----

This is not about people who come in here; this is about low earners. What is the Taoiseach going to say to them: "I'm all right, lads"?

Deputy Brady raised an issue-----

The Deputy is not going to try to browbeat people with shouting, roaring and heckling.

This is about workers on low pay.

The Deputy knows damn well-----

This is about workers on low pay.

The Deputy is being very simplistic, very populist.

This is about workers on low pay. The Government just wants to have a cheap deal-----

I am going to come back to the point on public service pay.

The Taoiseach should. He should stop playing politics and answer the question.

It is linked to the principal officer grade and has been for over 20 years. Does Sinn Féin want to break that link? It is the wealthiest party in this House. It is the wealthiest party in this country. It draws expenses from Westminster. It draws expenses from the Northern Assembly. It is well documented by programmes.

They are listening to the Taoiseach.

The Taoiseach is trying to play politics with the hypocrisy of politicians getting a pay hike when others are getting pay cuts.

The party has no shame about how it draws money left, right and centre.

That is where it is at.

The way to deal with wages in this country is to have a progressive taxation system that taxes those on middle and high incomes more than those on low incomes. That is what we have in this country. I am not going to play cheap political games-----

People on low pay-----

-----like the Deputy's party wants to do all the time. We do not raise-----

The Taoiseach would rather attack low-paid workers.

I have not raised millions of dollars in the United States like the Deputies' party. I do not have offices-----

Please, Taoiseach.

The Taoiseach would rather attack low-paid workers. He is trying to play politics.

Could the Sinn Féin Deputies restrain themselves? I thank the Taoiseach. I call Deputy Stanley.

That is disgraceful. I would not expect that from-----

Deputy Brady has had his say.

We have not accepted all pay rises in the past four years, or the last three years. That is a fact. I have proof on my phone and I will show it to the Taoiseach after the session if he wants to see it.

The issue I want to raise concerns increasing our ICU capacity, which is the lowest in the European Union. Within the programme for Government, on page 47, there is a commitment to increase it. We need to do so within the public system. There was a temporary increase owing to bringing private hospital capacity into the public system. We supported that at the time as an emergency measure but we have only six intensive care beds per 100,000 of the population. That is half the European average. Tullamore hospital, for example, has four permanent intensive care beds while Portlaoise has only two. The catchment area of those hospitals is 200,000. This is a dangerous set of circumstances, particularly as we move into the winter period. There was an increase in March and April. How much of this has been retained? What are we doing to increase capacity permanently in order to have a sufficient number of beds in the public system? I ask this question sincerely because this is life and death stuff.

The time is up.

I thank the Deputy for his fair question.

I am sorry but Deputy Nolan has a question on the same matter.

There is a shortage of ICU beds in both Tullamore and Portlaoise hospitals but there is an additional issue. I have spoken to many nurses already about the situation in Tullamore. Staff are also needed. There is no point in having beds without staff to man them. I urge the Taoiseach to address the staffing issue in addition to the ICU beds issue.

The entire issue with an ICU bed is staff. The ratio of nurses to patients in ICU is 1:1. It is very staff intensive, as it has to be. Therefore, up to 1,500 staff were trained during the pandemic to be ready for a Covid surge and to significantly increase ICU capacity to deal with any further surges. The facility exists within the health service to ramp up critical care capacity, if necessary. There has been an increase in beds since the beginning of the year but we will continue to work on that. I accept the bona fides of the Deputies in asking their questions. A genuine objective of ours is to ensure we have sufficient critical care capacity to deal with the issues.

I would like the Taoiseach to commit Government support to the family of Seamus Ludlow. Seamus Ludlow was a man who was killed in May 1976 outside Dundalk by loyalists, including members of the British Army. Yesterday, we heard the news that Mr. Jon Boutcher will lead a cross-border investigation, that is, an investigation involving the North and South. There were absolute failings on the part of the Garda, RUC and politicians north and south. We have all seen "Unquiet Graves" in the past while and know the reality of British collusion. We know the reality of the operation of death squads. The Ludlow family has been failed miserably and has been told lies. It has experienced nothing but failed investigations, and even failures in this House. Therefore, could we get Government support and all the resources necessary?

In fairness, Irish Governments have successively been supporting the case of Seamus Ludlow in terms of getting answers and securing the engagement of the British Government and others on the matter. Of that, I have no doubt.

In fact, the Irish Government, in terms of all parties, has probably been the one party that has honoured its commitments under the Good Friday Agreement as regards legacy issues. We set up the Smithwick inquiry, which is not often acknowledged. We did, however, and we were prepared take whatever came out of that particular inquiry in respect of the murder of two RUC members.

I am also well aware of the murderous work of the Glenanne gang, the deeply poisonous legacy they left and the degree of collusion involved. I have met Eugene Reavey on a number of occasions. He has worked tirelessly over many years in search of the full truth regarding the murder of his three brothers. We are, and will remain, committed as a Government to getting through it and getting all groups involved who have lost loved ones as result of violence, terror and murder.

I wish to raise again with the Taoiseach the forestry industry, sawmills and so forth. They are on their knees. Will the Taoiseach ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to sign off on the felling licences because the harvesters, hauliers, the plant hire contractors who build the roads, the sawmills and the planters are all going to be out of work. The people who have put in objections again are few in number. What they have done to all those people is a scandal. If they were in any other country, they would be dealt with in a different way. Will the Government now sign off on the licences?

I raised this matter with the Taoiseach last week because of how important it is. The Government, however, must also realise that what it is bringing before the Dáil does not go far enough in protecting the interests of people involved in the forestry sector, be it the haulage people, the millers or, most importantly, the farmers. It actually does not go far enough. I plead with the Government to really look at the problems we have, which were actually in the Department, and look at where we need to change the way permits are issued and the timeframe allowed for them. That is important.

That is in the Bill.

To be clear, I have read it.

What the Deputy just said does not tally. We are fundamentally changing the way appeals are being held by providing greater capacity to deal with the applications and appeals in a faster and speedier way. I say to both Deputies that the legislation is important and has been approved by Government. It is in the Seanad this week and will move through this House next week.

People object in this country. We have a democracy. I do not think we should be using language like "they would be dealt with in another way". I do not know what that means.

We cannot go into terms of the Bill. I call Deputy O'Donnell.

I have been contacted by many parents and students on what plans the Government and the Department of Education and Skills have in place to ensure the written leaving certificate will proceed in 2021. It is a significant issue that is causing huge anxiety among parents. There is a general historical credibility and acceptance around the written leaving certificate. It has served us well. Can the Taoiseach give reassurance in this regard? I appreciate the difficulty with Covid-19 but what plans can be put place, the Covid-19 environment notwithstanding, in order that the written leaving certificate can proceed next year?

I said previously in the House that I met the Minister for Education and Skills and the chief inspector and senior officials in the Department of Education and Skills. It is their absolute desire and commitment to have the normal leaving certificate that next year, that is, the normal written exams as well as other aspects of it. Obviously, Covid-19 will have some impact on, perhaps, some aspects around the oral examinations and so forth. They are, however, determined to have the leaving certificate and are already working in that regard.

I wish to highlight a glaring issue regarding the appropriate treatment for individuals with serious mental illness in our criminal justice system. I want to draw attention to a particular situation where an individual is clearly a danger himself or others, often family members. The person obviously cannot be held in custody once his or her sentence is served but often he or she is diagnosed with a mental illness that is not considered serious enough to move him or her to a mental health facility. Instead, judges are left with no option but to lift detaining orders, even when an individual who needs mental help is considered a potential threat to society.

I have an ongoing case in my constituency. An article in last Saturday's Irish Independent highlighted these issues. This is a serious and ongoing issue that needs immediate attention and legislation needs to be amended to address it.

I thank the Deputy for raising that. It is a significant issue. I would like to engage further with him, the Minister for Health and others to see how that issue can be best addressed.

Eight days ago, I raised the urgent need for a Covid-19 testing centre for Drogheda, the largest town in Ireland. The Taoiseach gave a commitment to make representations and revert to me. He never did get back to me, despite the fact that County Louth is now on a knife-edge and we are looking at the real possibility of heading into level 3. The people are playing their part and they expect the Taoiseach, as Head of Government, to play his. He can do mass testing or he can do the lockdown of an entire county. Can the Taoiseach tell the people of Drogheda and south Louth, following the representations and intervention I presume he has made, when the town will get its Covid-19 testing centre?

In the plan that was published and launched last week, one of the clear objectives of the HSE was that there would be, at a minimum, one testing centre per county. That is a commitment from the HSE. The precise location is a matter for the HSE operationally. I do not get involved in deciding where a test centre goes, whether it is that town as opposed to another town or a particular location. The HSE also deploys mobile clinics and different mechanisms. I have been in discussions with the HSE CEO on that point.

During the recent election campaign, the Taoiseach's party issued written reassurances on the future of Bantry General Hospital and the anaesthetist post there. In the programme for Government, however, no specific commitment was made on Bantry hospital, even though commitments were made for many more hospitals.

Almost two years ago, the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, visited Bantry General Hospital with the usual fanfare to announce funding to start the build of an endoscopy unit. Two years later, not a sod has been turned or a brick laid. Were the people of west Cork misled or can the Taoiseach tell me today when the endoscopy unit promised to Bantry General Hospital will be started?

Deputy Carthy will speak on the same matter.

Regarding health facilities, the Taoiseach will be aware of a situation in Carrickmacross involving a group home for young adults with severe physical and sensory disabilities. This building was promised by the HSE in 2006. It was completed in 2016.

That is a separate matter.

The Taoiseach is aware of this because on 4 December last year, he wrote to the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, outlining the seriousness of the situation. I have a written reply from the current Minister for Health, the Taoiseach's party colleague, that has indicated he cannot even commit to funding to open the centre next year.

I thank the Deputy. It is not the same matter.

Will the Taoiseach ask the Minister for Health to ensure the families of these people with severe disabilities have the group home they were promised more than a decade and a half ago?

Deputy, please. Will the Taoiseach deal with Deputy Collins's question?

As a former Minister for Health, I have had a long-standing commitment to Bantry hospital and I put significant resources in at that time. We do not put into the programme for Government approval for every individual post at a particular hospital, such as anaesthesia, cardiac surgery or whatever. We are, however, mindful of the issue raised by the Deputy. Deputies O'Sullivan and Cairns have also raised this with me in trying to make sure there is anaesthesia cover for Bantry hospital because that is essential for other activities to happen and for cover to happen within the hospital. Regarding the endoscopy unit, I will follow that up with the Deputy. Again, I do not get involved with the nuts and bolts of delivering particular facilities but I will revert to him with regard to that.

What about County Monaghan?

I am abiding by the Chair.

The Taoiseach has no answer. It would be nice to share it.

That concludes Questions on Promised Legislation. It would be nice if everybody would stick to the time and stick to the rules, so we can all be happy. I apologise to the four Deputies who were not reached today.