Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Yesterday we raised the long-running concern that we have about section 39 workers and the need for the Government to intervene and ensure that thousands of workers secure pay justice. In response, the Taoiseach said that the Ministers for Public Expenditure and Reform and Finance, and wider Government, would continue to examine the situation. I understand that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has since written to ICTU, declining an invitation to intervene in the dispute. The Tánaiste knows that these are the very same workers who made sure that essential services were maintained throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. I know that a number of unions involved now plan to ballot their members for industrial action. Fórsa's Catherine Keogh said yesterday that union members feel that the Department of Health, the HSE and Government have effectively turned their backs on them. She continued "They deserve a swift and decisive response that shows their work is valued". SIPTU is calling on the Government to back up its applause for essential front-line workers and to provide the necessary funding to make sure that all section 39 workers get the pay justice they deserve. Will the Tánaiste convert his applause into action for these workers?

As the Deputy knows, section 39 workers are a diverse group. They are not public servants and they are not Government employees but the work that they do is extraordinarily valuable. Some are employees of companies, some are employees of NGOs and some are employees of charities. These companies, NGOs and charities receive grant funding from the Government to fund partially or fully their operations but they are not employees of Government and they are not public servants, which is what makes this a complicated issue to deal with. Funding for section 39 bodies has been increased and will be increased again.

Last Friday evening, I spent over an hour with the Swords Youth Service, with a group of teenage boys, young men, who are known as the Underground Gang. They fear, like with many youth services around the country, for the viability of their service and the future of their funding. In line with the call from the National Youth Council of Ireland, what commitments can the Tánaiste give that there will be funding not only for 2021 but in the years ahead, so this vital service which has helped many young people through the ongoing Covid crisis knows that there is a future for the service?

I am afraid I do not have information to hand on that matter but I appreciate that it is important and a matter of concern to constituents. I will let the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, know that Deputy Smith raised it and ask him to reply directly.

I raise a matter of concern in our schools. There are families with children in school but the parents have a severe underlying health condition. They feel they are being failed as there is no remote learning option for students in such cases. For example, in the case of a family I am dealing with, the mother, who has a severe form of blood cancer, has two teenage children of schoolgoing age who cannot access remote learning options. How can the State step in to support these people and provide remote learning options and genuine help? There is a failing in this regard and it is leading to a financial burden and increasing anxiety in an enormously difficult time.

I call the Taoiseach. Apologies, I call the Tánaiste.

The Ceann Comhairle is at it too. It is October now.

It is catching.

I thought that would end around September but it is still happening.

I thank Deputy Gannon for raising the matter, which I understand is a difficulty. The solution is probably some form of blended learning. If pupils cannot be in the classroom because they are sick, are isolating or restricting movements or they live in a household with a vulnerable person, the ideal scenario would be some sort of mechanism by which they could use Zoom to participate in the class and at least get some education. It is a good suggestion and I will certainly discuss it with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Foley, to see if we can make some progress.

On "Claire Byrne Live", in justifying the Government's decision to dismiss the public health advice and trash the rationale of the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, in calling for further restrictions, the Tánaiste cited his concern for workers and people who either have lost their jobs or might lose their jobs as a result of restrictions.

Aside from the irony that the Government is cutting the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, lifting the eviction ban and facilitating the removal of the mortgage repayments moratorium, a group of workers, who have felt an impact, is outside the Leinster House gates now. I refer to the 22,000 taxi drivers and their families for whom, despite promises from numerous Ministers, the Taoiseach and so on that they would meet taxi drivers again and listen to their requests for assistance, nothing has been forthcoming. Their PUP is being cut, although there is no work out there for them and the grants they need to cover costs and sustain themselves have not been provided. Will the Tánaiste listen to and act on the requests of the taxi drivers, who are currently in a dire state?

I really feel for taxi drivers, who have an incurred an enormous hit to their incomes. They are essential people and we want them to be there when we get through this pandemic. We want the industry and the individuals working in it to survive. I am not aware of the particular details as to what engagement has taken place between the Government and the group but if I can be of any assistance in meeting them, I am happy to do that and hear out their suggestions. I cannot promise to deliver all of them but I would be happy to receive a delegation from taxi drivers and to see what are their suggestions. If we can do something within all the usual reasonable parameters, we will do that.

Two years ago, news broke that Ms Emma Mhic Mhathúna died after a battle with cancer. Many people remember where they were on that day and when they heard that heartbreaking news. On the second anniversary of her death, newspapers reported that another woman was dragged through the legal system before her case was settled in the High Court. This is despite the Tánaiste stating that no other terminally ill woman would be dragged through the courts.

Ms Patricia Carrick is a mother of four who is 51 years old. She was too ill to attend court this week and I offer my sincere solidarity, praise and prayers to the Carrick family. The timeline is important. News of the CervicalCheck scandal had broken and Emma Mhic Mhathúna had passed away four months before Patricia took a smear test from which abnormalities were missed. The fact that there still seemed to be mistakes in assessing smear tests last year is shocking. Will the Tánaiste clarify what is happening?

I am afraid I cannot but I certainly will ask the Minister for Health if he can answer any questions the Deputy has in this regard. Nobody wants to see women or any patients having to go through the courts to receive compensation where negligence has occurred but we have a real difficulty as sometimes the facts are disputed. Where facts are disputed, there must be some mechanism by which both sides can be heard, experts can be interviewed and a decision can be made. At present, that happens in the courts but as the Deputy knows, work is very advanced now on an alternative process, which is to be tribunal-based.

I am thankful that the vast majority of cases are settled by mediation or negotiation and do not require a full court hearing. Some cases nonetheless require such hearings. It is sad that with any test, whether it is a smear test, another lab test or a coronavirus test, there will be false negatives and false positives. Most of these are not a result of negligence but some are. It is a difficult truth.

My concern relates to the flu vaccine, which was highlighted on the "Claire Byrne Live" programme on Monday night. One would think this was a way of promoting the flu vaccine but over the past week, my office has been inundated with questions about the flu vaccine and specifically quotas for doctors.

Doctors are now only receiving their first quota of vaccine but they are inundated with requests from people who are very nervous about not getting the flu vaccine. I know there is a flu epidemic on top of a pandemic. For example, a practice nurse has said she went live with a children's clinic on Monday evening and the vaccines sold out within a couple of hours. There have been several queries about how the portal is not open for the ordering of extra vaccine. Could this be addressed as a matter of urgency?

As a result of the pandemic this year, there will be a big increase in the number of people who will want a vaccination against flu. As the Deputy knows, either for the first time or the first time in a very long time, children between ages two and 12 will get a vaccination against the flu and there will be a really good uptake this year. I found it quite alarming that in previous years, less than 50% of healthcare workers, for example, got vaccinated. I am confident that the lessons from the pandemic will result in that figure going way up to 70%, 80% or 90%.

I have heard there are some supply issues but I am not sure of the current state of play. I am confident there will be enough vaccinations to ensure people can be vaccinated before flu season begins.

Under the aviation section of the programme for Government, there is a clear commitment to deliver the capital programmes required to support services and ensure safety at State and regional airports. I am speaking specifically in respect of Cork Airport, with which the Tánaiste is familiar. The chief executive officer of Dublin Airport Authority, DAA, was in Leinster House yesterday and he stated that Cork has received no direct funding. I am merely asking now if Cork Airport will be able to access regional airport operating expenditure and capital funding so as to ensure it can survive the storm. This is so that when people start flying again, it will have a fighting chance.

Cork Airport went from 2.7 million passengers in 2019 to 650,000 passengers this year. If we are speaking about regionally balanced economic policies, we must ensure Cork has a fighting chance in order that when the airlines that have left Cork decide to come back, they will be able to do it through a sustainable operation.

It is really important that the aviation industry must survive this pandemic. I mean our airports, airlines and the related sectors, including aircraft maintenance and repair organisations. Ten or 12 years ago, during the previous recession, the construction industry collapsed and this was allowed because it was, in part, blamed for the crisis. We paid a very heavy price for that because two, three or four years later, when we needed a construction sector to build houses and infrastructure, it was not there. I am determined that will not happen again and that sectors like hospitality and aviation should survive this pandemic. We are going to need them when the pandemic is over, and it will end.

It is a matter that the Government is considering. EU state aid rules allow airports with fewer than 3 million passengers per year to receive state aid. This was not done, traditionally, for Cork, as the profits from Dublin were used to cross-subsidise Cork. No profits have been made at Dublin Airport this year, and this will change things. That is the current Government thinking.

Is that a "Yes"? Will we get funding in Cork?

It is to be decided by the Minister for Transport.

I am taking that as a "Yes".

Colleges have now moved online again under instruction from the Government. Students and hard-pressed parents have forked out thousands of euro for accommodation that will go unused for a second time this year, in all likelihood until Christmas. In many cases no refunds are being issued. This is a national scandal. These parents are so upset. They are hard-pressed in trying to pay bills, having paid for accommodation that in many cases they are not using. Surely the Tánaiste and the Government should be able to call this situation to order. Right is right - someone who buys a loaf of bread gets a loaf of bread. If people pay for accommodation, they use it. If they do not use it, they should not have to pay for it. In my common-sense view, that is fair and honest dealing.

I thank the Deputy. I hear what he is saying. Students should not have to pay for accommodation they cannot use, or in some cases have been told not to use. The Deputy will realise that in some cases, such accommodation is owned by institutes of technology and universities, while in other cases it is not and there is, therefore, a different relationship between the student and the accommodation provider. I will speak to the Minister, Deputy Harris, about this to see if we can arrive at a solution.

The programme for Government pledges to support local drug and alcohol task forces to help them identify needs in the community. I was a member of a drugs task force in the very early days and for several periods since then, until quite recently. I remember the exciting days when the community felt its voice was being heard. That has sadly been lost in the past ten years. Can the Tánaiste commit to supporting strong community representation on drug and alcohol task forces and to making statutory engagements obligatory for Departments and agencies? More importantly, can he commit to immediately investing in a new community development initiative to support community participation? The core issue is that we need community representatives who are supported on drug and alcohol task forces in order they can make a real commitment and bring real energy back to the task forces.

Where drug and alcohol task forces work, community representation and involvement makes all the difference. That factor means a task force is not composed of people coming from outside the area and applying a top-down approach. The Deputy is spot on in that regard. I am not across this area in detail any more but I will raise the Deputy's query with the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan. Anything to do with funding is a budgetary matter.

We are facing into the season of long winter nights. With the restrictions that will be in place because of the virus, there will be no card games or bingo or plays in local halls. People's mental health and well-being will come under huge pressure. I ask the Tánaiste to consider extending summer time this year. This would theoretically bring the spring evenings sooner. We would have an extra hour of light in the evenings, which I think would help people's mental well-being. Older people would be able to stay outside in their gardens and on their lawns that bit longer.

I thank the Deputy. I had not expected that question. This issue is debated from time to time. As the Deputy knows, the Minister with responsibility for time is the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy McEntee. I will let her know the Deputy has made this suggestion. There are arguments on both sides of this, and believe it or not there is a European directive on it. We would have to bear in mind what would happen in Northern Ireland. I would not like us to be in a different time zone to the Six Counties of Northern Ireland. That would be odd. If we were to do something it would be important to co-ordinate it on a North-South basis.

In 2013 the mobility grant scheme was suspended. I know that those who were getting it still get it, but that was a long time ago. It was said at the time that an alternative scheme was being devised. The upshot of a recent court case is that we are no longer carrying out examinations for the primary medical certificate. Will the people affected by this have to wait seven years for the issue to be addressed? We talk about care for the disabled, but do we act accordingly? Will provisions to rectify both of these issues be included in two items of legislation? I refer to including the issue of primary medical certificates in the finance Bill. Since 2013, we have been told that a replacement for the mobility scheme is being devised. Will a transport support scheme be included in the Bill to amend the Health Act 1947?

I raised this issue with the Minister for Finance earlier this week. Any person with mobility issues who is not on the public transport network is now effectively marooned in this country. That particularly applies across rural Ireland. The mobility allowance, the motorised transport grant and the primary medical certificate have now been suspended. No financial support is available. This needs to be dealt with in an expeditious manner and legislation must be brought forward as a matter of urgency.

I thank the Deputies. I have to confess that I was not aware an issue around the primary medical certificate had arisen in the courts. That is a matter of real concern. I will check that out for myself and will speak to the Minister for Finance about it. As Deputy Ó Cuív has rightly said, that mobility grant scheme has been closed to new entrants for seven or eight years, a very long time. In the last Government, the Minister of State with responsibility for disability issues, Finian McGrath, did a huge amount of work to develop a new scheme. However it was very difficult to come up with terms and rules on where to draw the line and who would and would not get it. Cost was also an issue. However, that is true of every scheme, including health and social welfare schemes. That is something we need to sort out. It now falls to the new Minister of State with responsibility for disability, Deputy Rabbitte, to take up that work and lead it forward. I am sure she will.

Yesterday the Garda rolled out an operation which saw the establishment of 132 static checkpoints across the State to try to stop non-essential travel between counties. While I fully support An Garda Síochána and appreciate the job it must do, the way in which it was rolled out caused complete chaos throughout the State, including in my own county of Wicklow. I have received numerous texts and phone calls from people caught in traffic jams for four hours and more. One lady coming from Crumlin hospital with her son was caught in serious traffic on the M50 and M11 for four hours. One front-line worker, a nurse, texted me to say that she had been stuck on the M11 for three and a half hours. These are essential workers who have to go to work on a daily basis. They do not have the option of working from home. While I fully support the endeavours of the Garda, this operation has caused major problems throughout the State and compounded the difficulties experienced by many businesses.

The time is up.

I know the Garda has made changes to several traffic layouts such as the N7 and the M2.

Deputy Brady is taking his colleagues' time.

Will the Tánaiste ask the Garda Commissioner to examine these operations and their impact on genuine people right across the State?

I thank the Deputy. I very much regret any inconvenience caused to people from Wicklow, Meath or Kildare who are essential workers, perhaps in hospitals, in Dublin. As the Deputy is aware, Garda operations are a matter for the Garda Commissioner. We do not get too involved and that is probably for the best. However, I certainly will make sure this is part of the discussion in consultations between the Government and the Garda Commissioner.

The programme for Government states that the Government is very serious about making a difference in the lives of people with disabilities. I am not sure if the Tánaiste is aware but there have been serious issues in Cork in respect of disabled parking. Cork city has rolled out an initiative to pedestrianise some streets to get more people to dine outdoors, visit restaurants and utilise the city centre. This is a very good initiative and I welcome it. However, it has caused serious issues with disabled parking spaces. Many have been moved. There are 100 disabled parking spaces in Cork, some in areas that are not suitable. People cannot access them.

When people get out of their car, they are on a roadway or cannot get onto a footpath. What will the Government do to oversee the approach being taken by local authorities to disabled parking and accessibility for people with disabilities? We wish to support disabled people and we need the Government to address this issue.

Are councillors not supposed to oversee local authorities, rather than the Tánaiste doing so?

I am trying to ensure adequate and proper disabled parking spaces are provided. I am asking the Government to step in if that is not being done locally.

The Deputy has made his point.

One of the silver linings to the very dark cloud which is this pandemic is that it is causing us to reimagine our cities and city centres and, to a certain extent, to reclaim the streets for cycling, pedestrians and things such as outdoor dining, which the Deputy mentioned, notwithstanding the often inclement weather. In general, the Government leaves these matters to local authorities. It is appropriate for it to do so. The people who know Cork best are those on Cork City Council. The same principle applies in Dublin and other parts of the country. In order to ensure that disabled people are not shut out of these new cities, because that would be a terrible thing, the Department of Transport could work on some form of guidelines. I will ensure the Deputy's comments are passed on to that Department.

Neither my party nor I has any desire to use the issue of ICU capacity to blame Fine Gael or anybody else for the spread of the virus. To do so would be disingenuous. However, we are very concerned about capacity in hospitals. I have spoken to many hospital managers in recent days. In my region, the south east, University Hospital Waterford had one spare ICU bed yesterday. The hospital manager told me there has been a massive increase in hospital admissions, with 176 admissions yesterday. There was a significant increase in trauma cases and because there was no ICU capacity in hospitals in Wexford or Tipperary there was significant demand for transfers into University Hospital Waterford. Hospital managers have told me that without additional capacity we are facing a very real problem and that what has been promised in terms of additional ICU and acute beds simply will not be enough. Will the Tánaiste tell them that if more beds than those committed to in the winter plan are needed, as I believe they are, the Government will make those resources available as soon as possible?

The short answer to the Deputy's question is "Yes". Covid pandemic or no Covid pandemic, we should increase our critical care bed capacity to in the region of 400 or 500 beds. We should be doing that anyway. We have made progress in recent years, but it has not been enough. Efforts in that regard need to continue. As the Deputy appreciates, it is not as simple as just providing a bed. An ICU bed is quite a thing and must be very heavily staffed. It is often the case that staff are not available. That is not just the case in Ireland; it is a problem in many places around the world. I was glad to hear the Deputy's initial remarks. We will monitor what he and other Sinn Féin spokespeople have to say. His comments were not made in the tone I have heard from some other Deputies.

Today is National Traveller Mental Health Day. Nearly 80% of Travellers who took part in a survey stated that they or a member of their family had suffered from depression, compared with just 8% of the general population. The survey, carried out by the Clondalkin Traveller primary healthcare project, involved Travellers living in the Clondalkin, Lucan, Newcastle and Palmerstown areas. Suicide and self-harm are also major factors, with 74% of respondents stating that they or a family member had suffered from self harm. On page 54 of the programme for Government, there is a commitment to publishing a Traveller and Roma mental health action plan. Has that work commenced? When will the action plan be published?

I was contacted by a parent of an 18-year-old young man who had an acute mental illness. He suffered from it for approximately a year. She told me he had regular appointments when he was under the adolescent services and that the support he got was very good, but since he turned 18 in February he has only had two appointments. He was supposed to have an appointment on 30 September but it was cancelled at short notice. He was promised there would be a follow-up phone call but it never came. When the family rang the clinic they were put through to another doctor who told them they had reached the wrong person and then hung up. He eventually got a prescription. Can face-to-face appointments for people with mental health issues be rolled out again? There have been three suicides in my locality in the past month. Two 21-year-olds and a 16-year-old took their own lives. There have also been several attempted suicides by young people. Mental health supports are vital.

Last week, the mental health charity HOPE(D), which is based in Newbridge, found out that it is going to lose its premises. The HSE refers clients to the service but it receives no funding. Imagine the HSE sending a person to a service that receives no funding. When will that organisation get a permanent home? What can be done about this situation? When will a 24-7 mental health service be provided?

I wish to raise the issue of the mental health of LGBTI young people in particular, who have had a very difficult time in recent months. They have not had a comfortable environment or been accepted. There has been a significant increase in referrals to BeLonGTo and other organisations. I raise this issue very strongly on behalf of those young people.

I thank the Deputies for raising the important issues they outlined relating to mental health, including individual cases, local services, LGBT young people and the Traveller and Roma communities. The commitment to develop and implement that strategy stands. I will ask the Minister of State with responsibility for mental health, Deputy Butler, to provide specific replies to the Deputies.

As the Tánaiste is aware, on page 12 of the programme for Government there is a commitment that new measures of well-being will be used to drive Government policy-making and to set budget priorities. As we plan for a world post Covid or through Covid and that is affected by climate change, that commitment is more important than ever. Those challenges are exposing the fragility of the approaches we have taken, as well as the capacity for solidarity if we get this right. When will we see movement on that initiative? What gets measured is what gets done. Will Ministers who will be producing strategy statements within 100 days set targets in respect of those wider dimensions that we need to factor into policy-making?

There is an old adage that one cannot improve what one does not measure. We are very good at measuring many things in Ireland, whether it is GDP, GNI*, unemployment numbers or waiting list numbers, etc. What we do not really have is an index for the well-being of society. There is a specific programme for Government commitment to do exactly that. I am not sure of its status, but it is something on which we wish to make progress. Some other countries have done it. The Government welcomes input from the Deputy and the various parties as to what that new index should look like.

That concludes Questions on Promised Legislation. We succeeded in getting in 20 Deputies today, which is not too bad. Well done to all.