Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Twenty-four Deputies have indicated, beginning with Deputy Mary Lou McDonald and ending with Deputy Maurice Quinlivan.

Today is day one of level 3 across the State and we have news of significant outbreaks of Covid-19 in nursing homes in Portlaoise and in Donegal. What happened in our nursing homes last spring was a scandal that cannot be repeated. Are our nursing homes prepared now for this second wave of Covid-19? Is there a plan and, if so, can the Taoiseach share it with us?

I heard with great concern the remarks of Dr. Dee in respect of the regional public health departments and the fact that they are desperately struggling to keep up with demand. I have raised the issue of testing and tracing with the Taoiseach time out of number and time out of number he has told me that that is properly resourced, when patently and clearly it is not. What is the plan to get this right and, above all, what is the plan to protect residents and staff in our nursing homes?

It has to be acknowledged that the serial testing programme introduced since last August has been important in terms of identifying these outbreaks early. Over 200,000 such tests have been carried out, with low positivity rates. That said, as the cases rise in the community, there will obviously be a consequential danger in terms of it spreading into nursing homes. Hence, the restriction on visitation numbers to nursing homes, which is difficult for many families but is in the best interests from a prevention of the virus spreading perspective. People will still be able to visit on compassionate grounds. Also, testing will continue with the same intensity.

On that matter, I have said repeatedly that testing capacity has increased significantly over the last while. The serial testing programme for nursing homes is one we did not have. The oversight committee met this morning. NPHET has been asked to appear again before the Covid Cabinet committee, which will meet on Friday, on any additional measures we need to take to protect nursing homes. We are very concerned about them. Obviously, they are a clear priority for all of us.

The new normal is working from home. We encourage it in the pandemic and I support that but it brings additional costs to workers. In the context of the budget next week, I ask the Taoiseach to consider the following. We need the Revenue Commissioners to inform employees of what they are entitled to by way of a public awareness campaign. The self-employed are allowed to write-off of costs in respect of light, heating, telephone, etc.. When it comes to the PAYE sector, given the fact we are in level 3 and that we could be in it for a while or be up and down levels for some time, can we, through the budget, bring in some measures around cost write-offs to encourage people through these levels to work from home, because what they get currently is fractional? I think it is a practical suggestion and a lot of workers are going to be affected. I ask the Taoiseach to consider my suggestion as part of the budget.

I will speak to the Minister for Finance in that regard. I hear what the Deputy is saying. Remote working will be a continual feature in a post-Covid society, although perhaps not to the same extent. There is a benefit in that it reduces costs in some respects. That needs to be acknowledged. Employers in some instances have stepped up to the plate in terms of providing resources to employees. I understand where the Deputy is coming from and I will raise the matter with the Minister for Finance.

The programme for Government commits to an affordable housing scheme. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has flagged that this will involve a shared equity scheme, presumably to be announced in the budget on Tuesday. There is a real danger that a shared equity scheme could lead to house price inflation and developers pushing up prices of new build homes. Given that there is a big gap between what the developers say are construction costs and what independent experts say are construction costs, what action will the Government take and what measures will be put in place to prevent a shared equity scheme pushing up house prices to ensure that housing is affordable?

The experience in the UK does not suggest that that will happen. Affordable housing is an important ambition and initiative but there are challenges around it. In terms of serviced sites, for example, that is taking more time than people would have thought in terms of getting off the ground but there are schemes that are in position in terms being developed. People do need to have access to affordable housing in this country. In addition, there needs to be a strong social housing building programme. Unfortunately, during Covid-19, house building was reduced. Construction generally was reduced. In European terms, because of the lockdown and the closure of construction, employment in construction here decreased more than it did anywhere else across Europe, although one has to caveat that by saying there is a difficulty sometimes in comparing numbers across member states. Overall, as can be seen from the ESRI study the domestic economy took a big hit during the lockdown. The multinational sector has been robust. It has been of huge benefit to the country in terms of economic resilience, in terms of employment and in terms of supporting the overall needs of the economy, which members across the House should acknowledge and take on board in terms of the ideological positions they articulate from time to time.

It is now, incredibly, day 180 of the Debenhams dispute. The Taoiseach has promised that the Government would legislate to rectify the sort of situation that the Debenhams workers find themselves in. When does he propose to do that? Even if such legislation is enacted, it will not resolve the situation for the Debenhams workers. What proposals are provided for in the legislation that will surround the budget or are to be introduced in the short term to address the situation? The workers have proposed, among other things, that a fund be set up, financed by a levy imposed on companies to pay for redundancy. Given the failure of successive Governments to legislate for the Duffy Cahill report, why does the Government not take up the Debenhams workers' proposal and put some money into that fund in order that the Debenhams workers can get their two plus two, which can be paid for by the future contributions of employers who should, as a legal requirement, have to pay a levy into a redundancy fund?

The Tánaiste has asked the Company Law Review Group to examine changes to legislation not just along the lines of the Duffy Cahill report but also with regard to stronger parity for collective agreements with others in any liquidations. The bottom line is that this is a liquidation. Incidentally, it is not clear that the application of the recommendations in the Duffy Cahill report in all instances would have resolved the issues relating to Debenhams. The Government continues to examine what it can do to support the workers and to try to get something additional to the statutory payments it will make. However, it has been very challenging, and I acknowledge that it has been difficult for the workers, in particular.

Regarding the idea of the fund that has been loosely articulated, ICTU has been in contact on this and people are genuinely trying to find a formula whereby something can be developed. However, there is a big issue with what the Deputy has suggested. Is he suggesting that every good employer who honours agreements will be left paying for those who deliberately - I am not saying this is the case here, but others have done so - evaded their responsibilities and obligations to workers? That is letting the honest people pick up the tab. There is a challenge and moral hazard there. If that is put into legislation, it could become a charter for cowboys across the country.

I have five short questions about the programme for Government in respect of education. The programme seeks to make further progress-----

Sorry, the Deputy can only ask one question.

Okay. The programme for Government makes a commitment to examine the pupil-teacher ratio. Ireland has one of the highest ratios in the OECD, with 20% of our pupils in class sizes of more than 30 pupils. Will the Taoiseach give a commitment to reduce further the pupil-teacher ratio as the Government continues over this year and in the coming years?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. We reduced the post-primary pupil-teacher ratio to a degree as part of the reopening of the schools package. The Minister for Education and Skills is pursuing a range of issues in the budget and the allocation of Estimates next year. Undoubtedly, she will endeavour to prioritise the needs of both primary and second level education into 2021, particularly in the context of the continuing impact of the pandemic. There are areas where we need to increase resources. Technology is one. There is also special needs education and there are other sectors as well.

I wish to return to the sad and scandalous situation of there being no mental health or long-stay beds in Tipperary. In Crisis House, Clonmel, we cannot progress the tender. Some 724 patients presented at South Tipperary General Hospital last year with mental health issues. That is 14 per week. Only 11 per month, or 140, were transferred to the psychiatric unit in St. Luke's General Hospital in Kilkenny. The other more than 600 were left to their own devices. They had to go home with scarcely any community services. This is a scandal. At the same time, I have received replies to parliamentary questions telling me that almost €2.1 million has been spent on the old St. Michael's unit, which was closed under A Vision for Change. There will be no bed there for mental health. It is all Covid-related. The impact of Covid on the mental health of families today is huge in every county, but I will raise my county of Tipperary every day with the Taoiseach because it is a scandal that it does not have a mental health bed. Some 600 were sent home and, sadly, many of them have taken their own lives. This is being ignored by the Government.

It is not being ignored, and I accept the Deputy's point regarding the impact of Covid-19 on mental health, which is significant and serious. It could continue as long as the pandemic continues. I am concerned about that. We must be conscious of that in the allocation and utilisation of resources. Significant resources have been allocated to mental health over a number of years-----

Nothing in Tipperary.

-----but the capacity to recruit clinicians and personnel has proved difficult. That is a problem. The most important provision in mental health is community mental health. Nobody should leave an emergency department in an acute hospital with no follow-up through either a psychiatric nurse or some community-based psychiatric service that would be of help. That is the ideal model.

It is not there.

Denise Mullen is an Aontú councillor in Mid Ulster. Some 46 years ago, the Glenanne gang murdered her father in the family home. Denise, who was four years old at the time, came upon her father's lifeless body and was forced to stay there for two hours due to fears there was a bomb in the house. Garfield Beattie was convicted of the murder of Denise's father. Mr. Beattie was released on licence under the Good Friday Agreement. He is a member of the Glenanne gang, which is made up of loyalists, British Army soldiers and the RUC. It is responsible for the murder of 120 innocent Catholics. Last week, Mr. Beattie was arrested for a death threat against Denise. In the same week, Fine Gael Deputy Charles Flanagan sought to undermine the campaign of the Glenanne families for justice.

I have sent requests to three taoisigh asking them to meet the victims and survivors of the Glenanne gang - one to Enda Kenny, two to Deputy Varadkar and three to the Taoiseach. I have not received a reply from any Taoiseach. Will the Taoiseach meet the victims and survivors of the Glenanne gang?

When did the Deputy ask me?

In July. I sent the invitation on an official-----

I have no difficulty meeting any such group. The Deputy should know that. I have met victims and the families of victims of the Glenanne gang previously. I have no issue with meeting people. What the Glenanne gang did was the worst possible manifestation of evil by any gang, perpetrated on innocent people. I have no truck with that type of thing, and I share the Deputy's empathy with the Mullen family. I would be more than happy to meet them. If the Deputy wants me to meet people in the future, he should just talk to me. There will not be an issue.

The Taoiseach will be aware that on page 85 of the programme for Government there is a commitment to replicate the north-east inner city model of support for communities at particular disadvantage. He will also be aware that, last week, a report entitled, Darndale A Long View of an Enduring Challenge, was published on behalf of the city council. Among other things, it calls for a co-ordinated delivery structure, a new approach to crime prevention or a broken windows strategy, as it were, a bespoke education programme and wrap-around youth services. I had the opportunity to meet Sphere 17 Regional Youth Service, which is seeking 450 additional service days to help support this community in a difficult time. Will the Taoiseach put in place a structure to start to implement that commitment in the programme for Government so this report that has just been published can be brought to life?

As Deputy Bruton said, the programme for Government commits to building stronger and safer communities. It also commits to expanding the Dublin north east inner city model to other comparable areas experiencing disadvantage. At a joint policing committee, JPC, meeting last Friday, Mr. Gerard Roche, the chief superintendent in Limerick, when speaking about drugs, said, "We have more intelligence than we can act on." I have been a member of the Limerick JPC for more than ten years and I have never heard such a blunt statement from such a senior garda. This is a startling statement. The local drugs gang in my city, unfortunately, is working 24-7 dealing its filth across our communities. It is giving the two fingers to everybody. I said this to the Minister for Justice and Equality last week. The two fingers from these drugs gangs are not just to me, the local community, the Garda Síochána or to Limerick council; they are two fingers to the State. I ask the Taoiseach to ensure that additional resources, including gardaí, are deployed as a matter of urgency to deal with these thugs in my city. The residents need some assurance that they will not be abandoned.

On Deputy Bruton's point, I believe not just in the replication of the north-east inner city Dublin model but also, and I was in the Liberties recently, in the initiatives of the early 2000s in the revitalising areas by planning, investment and development, RAPID, programme and the idea of a multi-sector and multidisciplinary approach to particular communities. It was one that worked.

We need to recreate something along those lines. Embracing a whole range of inputs, from housing and education to community enhancement, in terms of facilities, amenities and sport, was a system that worked in providing supports for people within those communities and it is something I intend to pursue. In response to Deputy Quinlivan's points, what I have just said also applies there. His points seem to be more around the operational side of An Garda Síochána and the need to deal with the drug gangs in a particular community in Limerick. We will certainly engage with the Department of Justice and Equality and the Garda on that. I have no doubt that the Garda has been very effective in many communities, to be fair, against many such gangs. The moral of the story in terms of how the gardaí apply themselves is that people may be giving two fingers but they do not give two fingers for too long before they are apprehended and dealt with before the courts.

The Judicial Council Bill 2019 was passed through the Houses of the Oireachtas. One of the major parts of the Bill was to establish a judicial conduct committee and that has been set up. In its most recent report of 29 September the drafting of guidelines on ethics and conduct were only in place and the drafting of procedures for making complaints about the Judiciary was only being put in place. This comes, of course, in the context of the situation that has developed in the last couple of weeks. I and I am sure most Deputies have been contacted by many people from the media in recent days and I have been very reluctant to make any comment. I respect the Judiciary and the separation of powers between it and the Oireachtas. However, having read the transcript between Ms Justice Denham and Mr. Justice Woulfe, it appears that Mr. Justice Woulfe has little respect for that separation of powers and has a very cavalier attitude to anyone trying to implement-----

Deputy, it is completely inappropriate-----

I was simply going to suggest that the Taoiseach write-----

Deputy, please. It is completely inappropriate and at variance with the traditions and Standing Orders of the House to make any comment here on a member of the Judiciary. Please do not go down that road. As Deputies Cannon and Nolan are not here, I call Deputy Andrews.

Given the vital role that childcare workers have in keeping the economy open and bearing in mind their low pay structure, will the Government ensure that all childcare and front-line workers will have access to the flu vaccine this winter free of charge?

The flu vaccine programme is under way and there are specific categories of people who will receive it. I will talk to the health authorities about the Deputy's suggestion. By and large, the vulnerable sectors of the population are the first priority and there is also a specific programme for children, unlike last year. We are looking for a far more expanded programme and a higher participation rate this year than ever before. There have been delays with supplies of the vaccine, which had nothing to do with here but were at the manufacturing end. They have eased somewhat and the programme is now under way.

I wish to ask about the promise on page 35 of the programme for Government to prioritise the development of microgeneration, letting people sell excess power back to the grid by June 2021. I wholeheartedly support this objective which was proposed by my colleague, Teachta Brian Stanley, in the form of the Microgeneration Support Scheme Bill 2017. This Bill had cross-party support but unfortunately the legislation fell with the last Dáil. We need to incentivise the use of microgeneration equipment such as household wind turbines and solar panels so they will be more affordable to ordinary homeowners. We spend too much time incentivising industrial wind turbines that are a blight on our landscape and have little benefit except to foreign pension funds and foreign government bodies such as the Norwegian company, Statkraft. How does the Government propose to deliver on that date, as promised, which is just nine months out?

The Government supports microgeneration and will continue to do so. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, will be publishing a groundbreaking climate Bill today which will set far-reaching targets for the country and our society. I believe it will be transformative in its impact. That said, microgeneration on its own will not meet the energy needs of the country into the future. Renewable energy and wind energy in particular have been very significant for electricity generation here and will continue to be. The move will be to go offshore in a substantial way. Offshore wind generation is where I see the major growth over the next years in powering the country forward. Incentivising microgeneration for people on the ground is something the Government will be attending to and dealing with.

The Taoiseach's demeanour and attitude and his answers yesterday when questioned about the cross-border directive and allowing people to go to the North of Ireland to get their cataracts removed were totally unacceptable. He talks about building something in Cork to deal with this problem. He is saying that he will not allow the cross-border directive to continue but how is there such a difference between him and the Minister, Deputy Coveney? They are in the same Government and the same constituency. Many people will go blind if the Taoiseach does not allow this and ensure that the service continues. I took a woman up to Belfast in August. If she had had to wait two weeks more, she would have lost her sight. Does the Taoiseach understand that? This service has to be allowed to continue and legislation needs to be introduced to allow it to continue.

The Deputy clearly did not listen to me yesterday. I actually said that we would have to replace the European Union directive with a separate bilateral arrangement between Ireland and the United Kingdom. That is because the cross-border directive is a European Union directive. The Deputy and I know that Britain is leaving the European Union on 1 January so that specific directive could not apply from then onwards. That is what I said and the Deputy should not misrepresent it. I believe it is far better if we can provide capacity locally for people to get cataract surgery rather than having to travel long distances to Belfast or other areas. I welcome the fact that the services are available in Belfast and that, through this directive, the taxpayer and health services have facilitated reimbursement for people who have availed of the cross-border directive to date. I also said yesterday that, as part of the Brexit negotiations and the common travel area, we are looking to renew the ongoing relationships and arrangements between the two countries in respect of health services for Irish citizens in Britain and British citizens in Ireland. That is the spirit in which we intend to proceed.

Yesterday was European Carers Day. In an online briefing, Family Carers Ireland spoke of the pressures that family carers are under to meet their bills. Some are forced to make a choice between heating their homes and getting their shopping. The programme for Government commits to improving supports for carers. Now that electricity and other utility bills are going up for many, will the Government provide supports for carers to deal with cost increases such as these given that many do not quality for the fuel allowance? This sector has done unbelievable work, mostly unseen, during this pandemic and no help was given to them. The Government must do the right thing next week in the budget and help the sector.

The Government has great appreciation for the work of the many carers across the country. The Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform are mindful of that in the context of the forthcoming budget, alongside all the challenges they will face which they have to engage with and try to manage within available resources. There had been continuing provision of resources to carers.

Obviously, more would be desired and more can be done. Again, I will not pre-empt the budget at this particular point.

As the Taoiseach will be aware, farmers are going through an extremely difficult time whether they are dairy, beef or sheep farmers. The price of cattle is at a low figure. Many farmers totally depend on a good price for cattle to survive and basically feed their families and put them through college or simply pay their own bills and put food on the table.

Many farmers are advised to sign up to various schemes to enable them to get another income into their farms, one of which is the organic farm scheme. This is an environmentally friendly way of farming and I expected the Green Party in government would be jumping out of their skins to promote it. However, since the scheme reopened more than a year ago, why have 85% of applicants been refused entry thereby leaving it open only to the large farmers?

Is the Government serious about the survival of the small farms throughout the country and will the Taoiseach be able to resolve this farcical situation? I ask that he and the Ministers, Deputy McConalogue and Senator Hackett, step in here to allow genuine organic applicants into the organic scheme.

I do not know the reason those applications were refused. I have spoken to the Minister, Senator Hackett, and we had a good discussion around the need to strengthen the organic sector within agriculture. I appreciate the Deputy embracing that sector as an important area for growth and development into the future. I have a passionate interest in terms of promoting and developing it and, likewise, so do the Ministers, Senator Hackett and Deputy McConalogue. I will check out the reasons why 85% of applicants did not make the cut.

It was reported to me that the six ICU beds in Wexford General Hospital were full as of yesterday, Tuesday, 6 October, one through Covid-19. We are aware we are facing into our first winter under Covid-19. We know the winter influenza season is coming. Why does a county hospital such as Wexford General Hospital only have six ICU beds to cover a population of more than 150,000 people?

The Taoiseach said yesterday an additional 57 ICU beds have been introduced since March, which is welcome. How many of these, however, were in Wexford General Hospital? How many of the additional 17 beds in the winter plan will be allocated to Wexford General Hospital? What action is the Government taking to ensure sufficient ICU bed capacity in Wexford General Hospital for the possible second wave of Covid-19 this winter?

Many ICU beds across the country are occupied because we want them to be in terms of ongoing non-Covid treatments. That is part of the overall plan in terms of the resumption of non-Covid services in our health system and that will continue.

In respect of specific hospital allocation and provision, in the first instance, the allocation and prioritisation of resources is a matter for the Health Service Executive. I will relay the Deputy's question back to the HSE although I am not sure whether he has engaged with the HSE locally on that matter.

On Monday, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, brought the final commission of inquiry into the mother and baby homes report to the Cabinet. In recent days, I have been on inundated with calls. I ask, on behalf of the survivors and those who have passed, whether the recommendations of this report will be published. If it will not go into the public domain, are the survivors who took part in this inquiry entitled to have sight of those recommendations?

The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, brought legislation to the Cabinet last week regarding the retention of records pertaining to mother and child homes. I do not believe he brought a report, specifically, to last week's Cabinet meeting. That Bill will be published and, to be fair, the Minister has engaged with all involved and is anxious to work to help survivors and families of all those involved as well.

Deputies Sean Sherlock, Michael Healy-Rae and Paul Donnelly have not been reached and will be given priority tomorrow. I regret to say we are 20 minutes behind schedule and must move on.