Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Much of the frustration of students and families is about the lack of transparency and the fact that they have been kept in the dark for a week, much as the Minister disputes that. As I said, the Opposition and the Cabinet were kept in the dark as well. The Minster still has not told us why he did not insist this issue be discussed at Cabinet and that his Cabinet colleagues knew. The other groups kept in the dark were the third level institutions and the Higher Education Authority, HEA. At the start of his answer to my supplementary question earlier, the Minister said the Minister with responsibility for higher education, Deputy Harris, and the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Foley, were working on actually sorting out this issue. If the Minster, Deputy Harris, knew on Friday and was sorting it out, then why did the HEA not find out until yesterday?

There was a detailed discussion on Monday night between the three different parties. It was agreed we would ask the Ministers, Deputies Harris and Foley, to continue to work on getting the exact details and all of the information, for the same reason I said here-----

How could they do that without the HEA?

On what basis would they go to the HEA and say they did not know the numbers and they did not know the exact consequences? It was appropriate to get those details and other arrangements correct.

(Interruptions).

It is very much involved now. It was informed in time so it has done a slightly revised third round offer for a variety of reasons it is best placed to make. It will make a further fourth offer next week, towards the end of the week. That is my expectation. From the best advice on how this can all be sorted out, it was far better to get that right and to get the pieces in place so we can adjust and ensure every student gets the third level they should have got and that is what will happen.

Following on from the mess yesterday and where we are coming from with calculated grades, the Government set up a calculated grades office in the Department of Education and Skills. Second, it set up the national standardisation group. Third, it set up the independent steering committee to oversee the implementation. Fourth, on top of those, the independent expert Dr. Janet Brown was appointed as an external reviewer. As such there were four layers in order to do the calculated grades. Then on 24 August all of that work changed suddenly. This was because the assistant secretary in the Department sent out a memo and changed the modelling. How in the name of God did these four layers not catch on that there was something wrong here?

I have a second question. We said this at the time but was 24 August not too late in the day to be changing the model which all 61,000 students in Ireland were depending on?

My understanding of why it was not seen is that the predicted results were very close to what was expected. There was a variance from historic patterns by, I think, 4%. All the analysis done by all the different tiers of State expertise and officials mentioned by the Deputy came to the conclusion that that was roughly what we expected. There was no other variation that in any way indicated that this coding error had been made whereby the bottom two of the junior certificate results were counted rather than the top next two. It was only when the person responsible for that ran the applied leaving certificate results that there was a variation he could not quite understand. He then looked through the 50,000 lines of code – he had certain expertise having written much of it – to find out what it was and he reported it back. The variation was not categorised in any one area, in any one school or in any one subject. It did not lead to a significant change in what the results would otherwise have been. It is still appropriate, to my mind, to adjust this to be absolutely correct and accurate in terms of how our leaving certificate is adjudged.

Minister, I ask you to co-operate.

Apologies for that.

I am going through the leader of each group first. Deputy Whitmore has one minute and there is one minute for the reply.

Today is the first day of national breastfeeding week and despite all the known benefits of breastfeeding rates remain very low in Ireland, so we are obviously not doing something right. Only 15% of babies are still being exclusively breastfed by the time they are six months old. Will the Government please commit to funding and resourcing the national breastfeeding strategy and ensure we give the best start in life to our babies?

I absolutely agree with Deputy Whitmore that our levels of breastfeeding are shocking and a disgrace to the country. It is a very difficult subject for a man to speak about but I know the science, research and health evidence show that breastfeeding has huge benefits to health and all sorts of other outcomes. We need to radically improve the incidence and level of breastfeeding. We have the right strategies and our maternity strategies have improved in recent years. I would have been very critical about this a number of years ago. We have the right strategies and plans in place but it seems we are not implementing them, right down to hospital ward level, and that has to change. It is not easy because it is a matter of personal choice and there is no way one would ever criticise anyone for the choices they make in that regard but on public health grounds, I absolutely commit to supporting the Government in trying to achieve those objectives.

The programme for Government commits to addressing the ongoing and shameful homelessness crisis.

The Green Party and Fianna Fáil when in opposition supported our Bill to halt evictions. In the context of Covid-19 the Government was forced, rightly, to bring in an eviction ban because making people homeless is totally incompatible with public health, yet the Government has now allowed that ban to lapse.

We sought to bring forward a Bill in our Private Members' slot next week which is essentially the eviction ban, but we have been told that staff in the Dáil, through no fault of their own I want to stress, cannot process it because they have been overrun with things such as the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which the Government rammed through with a guillotine, collapsing the normal sequence of legislative scrutiny. The Government has done this on multiple occasions, and as a result the staff are not able to process our Bill for Private Members' time. The Bill would seek to reinstate the eviction ban to prevent people going into homelessness during Covid-19.

In the same way as it facilitated its own Bills, which it has rammed through, will the Government facilitate us on this critical issue to address the problem of homelessness?

If the Deputy facilitated the Chair it would be helpful to other Deputies.

I am informed by the Deputy's own Whip of some of the details on this. Unfortunately, the Bills Office only became aware of this today or yesterday.

There is another fundamental issue, which is that 17 other Bills are due for a hearing and it is not possible. What would we say to the originators of the 17 other Bills as to why-----

They do not have Private Members' time next week.

As I said, I have no objection to the ordering of the business of the House. It is an issue for the Business Committee. I would quite happily welcome further debate on this critical issue and it is critical to review what is happening with regard to the numbers. Have we seen a spike in evictions? Is the mechanism for those who face eviction because of financial circumstances due to Covid providing the right protection? I would welcome that debate. It is a matter for the Business Committee to manage the ordering of the House-----

Which is run by the Government.

-----with the Bills Office.

The test centre for Covid-19 in Louth is based in Dundalk. Over the past 14 days, the people in Louth have been working very hard to reduce the figures. The rate in north Louth is 179.7 per 100,000, in Dundalk it is 120.2 per 100,000, in Ardee and mid-Louth it is 19.7 and in Drogheda it is 55.9. In July, 1,000 tests were done. In August, the figure was 2,000 tests and in September it was 4,000 tests. It looks like there could be 8,000 tests in October. Why is the HSE trying to move the test centre from Dundalk to Ardee when there are serious issues in north Louth? It means people have to travel from Omeath, Carlingford, Lordship and Dundalk to Ardee. It makes no sense whatsoever. Please not to tell me it is the HSE that allocates the locations. Covid-19 is a serious epidemic and it makes no sense to move the test centre from Dundalk to Ardee. Will the Minister please intervene as soon as possible?

We all have the terrible ritual of watching the numbers at 6 o'clock every day. A couple of weeks ago, having been informed by Ronan Glynn that Louth was of particular concern, I looked at the sectoral area and there was a particular problem in Carlingford and north Dundalk. I have friends in the area so I look out for it and keep an eye on it with real concern. Every day if the Louth numbers have not gone up, I hope it will manage not to have the difficulties we have had in Dublin, Donegal or elsewhere and I hope this continues to be the case.

With regard to the issue of swabbing, next week the HSE will initiate a recruitment drive to hire more than 700 community swabbers and testers to work in community test centres, home-based testing, outbreak testing, residential care facilities and specific work locations. The recruitment drive will start on Monday. This will free up health service workers-----

The question I asked was about going from Dundalk to Ardee. Please stop waffling and just give me an answer.

Let the Minister-----

I will absolutely commit to the Deputy and any other Deputy that the 700 new workers who will work in community centres, home based testing and outbreak testing will be fairly distributed throughout the country.

It makes no sense to go from Dundalk-----

It has to be fairly-----

There are 9,000 people in mid-Louth-----

They have to be fairly distributed throughout the country-----

Minister, the time is up.

-----because every Deputy here, I am sure, will want it to be done on the basis of public health advice and science-----

Thank you, Minister.

-----with regard to where we need testers and how they should-----

Minister, please. You have to co-operate with the time.

It makes no sense to have it in place a where there is no epidemic.

The problem is in north County Louth. Deputy Fitzpatrick is right.

I am the first to acknowledge there are areas of the country that we have to address. The HSE is best placed to make that call.

The Minister will have to co-operate a little bit with the Chair.

My apologies.

Many Deputies are waiting. I will stop the Minister because it is not fair to the other Deputies.

If he answered the question there would be no problem.

On a point of information, it is amazing to see Deputy Fitzpatrick complaining but he votes with the Government on every vote no matter what it is on. The Regional Independent Deputies are voting with the Government. They want to play a double act then of being in opposition.

The post office network is under the remit of either the Minister or his ministerial colleague, Deputy Catherine Martin. It is about to collapse if there is no State intervention. Covid is having a huge impact because people are being encouraged to pay by card and payments are not going through the post office. The Government is choking the post offices. Will the Minister and his fellow Green Party Minister seriously look at the post office network because it will no longer exist? This is not just in rural Ireland but also in urban areas where post offices are under huge pressure.

I am glad to say it is still my area of responsibility. It is within the Department. I am also glad to say that something we have seen in recent years is a turnaround in An Post whereby the company is starting to grow again. The company is introducing new services. Only three weeks ago, I helped it launch a new scheme to help people save energy in their homes.

They will be gone.

It is working with an energy company and providing the finance. It is opening up a range of new financial instruments.

Yesterday, Deputy Moynihan gave me an example from north-west Cork where a local post office sought to introduce a community work hub centre in the post office to see whether it was a way of attracting business. We need to use the post offices as centres for Government services and a range of new financial services and other services. We are committed to doing this.

When are you going to do that?

We are seeing the expansion of An Post into areas such as parcel delivery, financial services and other areas. I am confident this will lead to growing new business. It will be different and it will not stay the same. We will not retain the mail or other systems as people move on. There is a future for the Irish post office system and the network.

I will deal with the issue of the grades and I do not have time to get in of the ins and outs of who knew what and when. The Minister said all students will get the courses they deserve on the basis of the marks. Does that mean this year? Is this absolutely guaranteed? I have heard other commentary that suggests differently. With regard to how this happened, I have questions about the testing. As the worst programmer that ever walked God's green earth, I know we have all come up with sample data that we run through to find these issues. I do not understand. It sounds to me like something fairly basic, whereby somebody had a less than or equal to sign in the wrong place and the testing did not find it. I just want an answer. The more important answer is that students need delivery now and the costs need to be covered for them.

I would like to come in on this point. What preparations are being made to look after next year's leaving certificate students and to ensure that those who sat the leaving certificate before this year are not further penalised? What preparations are being put in place to assist those students who wish to take the exam in November? Are schools being told to give assistance and support to these students? Students have gone through so much with Covid-19 and they are now looking for support from their schools. Everything is being put online but that is not good enough. The Department needs to give information to the schools to help these students who are resitting their exams.

I will start with the issue of next year's leaving certificate students. It is clear that everyone's preference would have been to have sat the leaving certificate this year but it was not possible. That was the decision that was made. One thing the Government is saying about the pandemic is that we will keep the schools open. It is critical for the mental health and development of our children that we will do whatever it takes to do this. In these circumstances, the message to the upcoming leaving certificate students is that there will be leaving certificate exams next May and June. They will have a difficult time because they have lost out on class time and they have had a different experience. The syllabus and the exams will reflect this. They absolutely have to expect that they will sit the leaving certificate.

We will not know the numbers until the model is run with this revised code and it is checked to ensure there are no other errors in it. It is impossible to know precisely when that will be. As I said earlier, last year some 3,000 students got an upgrade. This issue only applies to upgrades. There is no downgrading in this. Last year's upgrades led to 600 students being successful in getting a different application. If we play that statistic, that is why one gets to 1,000 places. I believe it will be fewer. That had a qualification in that there were people who wanted an upgrade. In this instance, it is random.

We must move on. I call Deputy Michael Collins.

Maybe I could have a supplementary.

No, there are no supplementaries. There is only one minute for a reply.

A few days ago, the Taoiseach mentioned the possibility of addressing rising numbers of Covid cases in four named cities on a citywide rather than a countywide basis, which I fully understand. In one electoral area in west Cork we have had fewer than five cases in the past 14 days. As this is based on per 100,000 population and the population of the local electoral area is fewer than 25,000 people, this effectively equates to less than one case and most probably none.

Since the Taoiseach spoke last week, on Sunday the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, spoke on certain counties with Cork, Galway, Waterford and Kildare being watched carefully over the coming days.

The reality is that Cork University Hospital, as of last Friday evening, had one - one too many - Covid-19 patient in the entire hospital. This is the largest hospital in County Cork and possibly the largest in Munster. Cork is a large county, stretching 150 km from one end to the other. Will the Minister continue with a more targeted approach and keep as many areas, parts of our country and economy open, as we all try to find a way through this? Will he specifically keep County Cork open for business?

Cork was the first real scare place in my memory of this back last spring. There was an instance in Cork where it started up. I remember talking to some of the medics in Cork who were really expecting to be hit the worst. In truth, Cork over the subsequent several months, had a much lower incidence compared to the rest of the country. That has changed in recent weeks in Cork city but it may, thankfully, not be the case in parts of the county.

We all have to be vigilant. One of the reasons the Government set up this framework with five levels is to allow us to be flexible and have a situation where a county can be at a different level. I hope that with Dublin and Donegal that if the numbers stabilise - we are not going to get the numbers down to zero - they can get back down to level 2. If we can all stabilise for a period, we can get to level 1. That is where we want to head to.

I have listened intently to the Minister. It is obvious there was no good news to be announced this morning because the Minister's Fine Gael Cabinet colleagues are not here.

There is an absolute crisis in the Government. I do not think the Minister understands it. From start to finish, we have had months of this in terms of the leaving certificate. It is unbelievable that the Minister and his colleagues in Cabinet would think that it was okay to sit down at a Cabinet meeting and not discuss the leaving certificate issue. The Minister is either saying it was not important enough or he did not get the gravity of what has happened.

The business of the week was being discussed. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Foley, or the Minister with responsibility for further education, Deputy Harris, was not even in it. Does the Minister realise that whatever words he is using, his actions are telling people a much different story? This is without the 10,000 prior leaving certificate students who we were told there were no places for but suddenly there are places for them. It is an absolute shambles. I feel sorry for the Minister that he has been left defending this.

The Government is working together collectively. I had a long conversation with the Minister, Deputy Harris, this morning to get every detail from him as to what will happen with the CAO and application points. I had the officials of the Minister for Education and Skills brief me at length. Over the past few days, our various teams have been fully briefed and informed.

The Cabinet comes to discuss something when there is a decision to be made. Sometimes it is appropriate to get the proper information, as well as all facts and figures correct. There was nothing restricting the Government in doing the key work that had to be done, which is sorting out this problem quickly to ensure we can get students in college next week. That is what we focused on.

In recent weeks, St. John of God Community Services wrote to the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister for Health about its current financial difficulties. Yesterday, its board had no alternative but to inform the HSE of a 12-month notice of termination of its contract. How has this been allowed to happen? What protection has the Government got in place for the 8,000 children and adults who rely on St. John of God Community Services, as well as its 2,500 staff members?

I agree with the Deputy that St. John of God Community Services does vital work and provided a significant service to a large number of people over the years. It has given 12 months' notice. It is a serious issue and I am happy to provide a note to the Deputy with background information.

St. John of God Community Services, part of the St. John of God Hospitaller Services Group, provides a range of invaluable services and supports to more than 2,400 children and adults with intellectual disabilities and 5,000 children and adults with a mental illness in Dublin and other areas of the country.

The HSE allocated €162.7 million to support these services this year. This comprises €134.2 million for disability services and €28.6 million for mental health services. The HSE has also provided it with access to €12 million in cash acceleration above its core budget this year to ensure continuity and service provision. I will provide the Deputy with full details.

Does Deputy Crowe wish to come in on this matter?

No, I want to make a point of order. Eight Sinn Féin Deputies have exceeded the time agreed to be shared. There are Members from the Government backbenches who would also like to talk.

That is not a point of order. I am going through a list. I am now moving on to Deputy Cahill.

They are rattled opposite.

We agreed basic matters such as a reduced number of Deputies in the House, we would wear masks and so forth.

I call Deputy Cahill.

I also want to raise the issue of school transport, which Deputy Mattie McGrath referred to earlier, and a family affected by it. Michael O'Brien has a daughter who is 12 years of age and who is recovering from leukaemia. The school bus stops outside her door but she is refused a seat on the bus. We have 14 other students in that area who have also been refused school transport. There are numerous examples in County Tipperary where Bus Éireann has refused to provide transport for children for school.

The single parent in question, Michael O'Brien, has to choose between going to work or taking his daughter to school. She has already missed eight school days this year. I have numerous examples from Moneygall or Kilcommon where Bus Éireann, although allocated an extra €11.3 million, is not providing the services needed in rural areas. Will the Minister urge Bus Éireann to put on extra school buses to get our pupils to schools?

I was disappointed by the Minister's earlier response on school transport. Essentially, he said there was nothing to see here and that everything is working as planned.

In County Monaghan, I am dealing with more than a dozen families with school transport problems. In some instances, one child from a family is permitted on a bus while another child is not. I am dealing with families with children with special needs for whom no provision has been made for their school transportation this year, as was the case in previous years.

I have been dealing with officials in Bus Éireann who have told me that they are absolutely exacerbated by the Government's failure to release the resources necessary to ensure those children who need to get to school are permitted to do so. The Government needs to act on this issue now.

No one here is saying that everything in school transport is working perfectly. It clearly is not. The case of the child recovering from an illness is difficult. If the Deputy provides me with the details, we can look at the specific case.

We were not able to adjust the actual system in the timeline for the return to school and the public health side of it. It was working because there had not been a spike or an increase in infections due to the return to schools. The first real concern was keeping our schoolchildren healthy. The bus drivers, the bus companies, Bus Éireann and the schools managed to do that part of our operation in a way that has not seen a spike. I commend them on that work.

There are kids who cannot get to school, however.

It is not satisfactory. There is a whole range of circumstances in different parts of the country. A significant amount of money will be made available to provide additional bus services and to meet the public health obligations.

I will be talking to Deputy Foley to see if it changes the circumstances if, as the Deputy says, one child from a family is getting the bus and the other is not able to do so. We need to address and show flexibility to the companies to make sure those sort of operations are not tolerated.

As the Minister knows, some months ago a memorandum of understanding was signed between the Department of Health and its counterpart in the North in relation to co-operation in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. In the meantime, there have been meetings at political and official level between both Administrations and that is welcome. Unfortunately, there have been increasing incidences of the virus in areas both north and south of the Border over recent weeks. Many eminent persons in different areas of medicine, such as Professor Sam McConkey and Dr. Gabriel Scally, have repeatedly spoken about the need for greater North-South co-operation. Will the Minister indicate if there are Government proposals to introduce new measures and intensify existing co-operation on an all-Ireland basis in dealing with the pandemic? We must take a greater all-Ireland approach or we will never rid our island of this virus.

The Deputy is right. We live on one island. We do not have a physical border and never will again, to my mind.

People crossing over and back is a part of everyday life. In those circumstances, we need to have complete co-operation between our health services, North and South, to make sure the risk of infection is minimised. At the recent North-South Ministerial Council, the administration from Stormont came down to Dublin Castle and it was a good meeting. A large part of it was made up of a presentation from the office of the Chief Medical Officer in Northern Ireland with Dr. Ronan Glynn, our own acting Chief Medical Officer. I know from talking to Dr. Glynn that they are in regular contact and are committed to integrating the two systems to make sure we minimise the risk of transmission across this island. I do not have specifics in terms of additional measures that are being considered in that regard but my sense is there is nothing restricting co-operation. If there is, we should identify it and address it with our colleagues. I am going to a North-South Ministerial Council meeting next week. If any Deputy has examples of where there are problems about gaps between the two, I am happy to raise it there.

We will fit in one last Deputy.

As the Minister is aware, Bus Éireann has announced it is withdrawing from the Cork-Dublin route. This will lead to a significant impact on the people living in Fermoy and Mitchelstown in east Cork, with the loss of 42 services per week. The area will be left with one service to Cork and back on Sunday and that is it. What does the Minister tell the people of east Cork, including Mitchelstown, Fermoy and the hinterland? When is there the possibility of a service and how quickly will it be resolved and restored? It is a vital service in east Cork and it is gone.

Bus Éireann came to us with its proposed reallocation and redeployment. The company has to manage its resources and we agreed to it. They were various caveats or conditions related to that. One is that they are looking to redeploy bus services in Cork to improve the services into and in the city.

I was aware a number of years ago that the same issue was arising in Fermoy, Mitchelstown, Cahir and all the towns along that line. It was difficult for Bus Éireann Expressway to compete on the Dublin service because it was stopping on all the routes along the way and the other bus companies were going direct. Bus Éireann was losing customers on that Expressway route. I said if there was a withdrawal of any services it would be with the caveat that the National Transport Authority, NTA, would look at each of those towns and, where there was a lot of connectivity or services, we would see whether we could provide such connectivity or services on a public service obligation route instead of an Expressway commercial route and do that in tandem with anything we do with revised routes. Those towns are specific examples where we have had that difficulty so I will be in touch with the NTA in that regard to make sure there is connectivity.

Sin é. Beidh sos ar feadh-----

I wonder if I might raise a point in a very respectful way. I ask the Ceann Comhairle's office to come back to me on it. On two occasions this week, I have sat through Questions on Promised Legislation and have not been reached on either occasion. There were different people in the Chair. We have a constitutional obligation in this House to hold the Executive to account. Every Member of the House has the right to do that. I spent two days sitting in the Chamber listening to Opposition Deputies rerun Leaders' Questions, not addressing issues which are Questions on Promised Legislation.

The Deputy is misusing the time. The time is up, but I will explain one thing before the sos begins. We are over time and we should be having a break for sanitation. I have a list of names and I have meticulously gone through those names as they were given to me. Deputies should take it up with the Business Committee.

Sitting suspended at 1.15 p.m. and resumed at 1.35 p.m.