Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

I wish to take this opportunity to wish John a very long, happy and healthy retirement.

I wish to raise with the Tánaiste the issue of the Debenhams workers, now out for six months. Yesterday KPMG wrote to Mandate. It said it was willing to offer a commitment to notify Mandate at least two hours in advance of the times when and the stores which the liquidators intend to enter for delivery of packing materials or removal of stock. KPMG broke that undertaking in the middle of the night in the Henry Street store. Mandate has responded to KPMG and is seeking that it will proactively re-engage. The workers in Debenhams have been given tea and sympathy and pats on the back. We all agree they have been treated disgracefully, but they are six months out, and now we find that KPMG has gone into the stores and broken an undertaking it gave to the workers. Will the Tánaiste join me in condemning the actions of KPMG? Will he pick up the phone to the trade union, the workers and KPMG and convene a meeting? That is what is needed at this stage. This will not be resolved until such stage as the parties meet, but there were developments overnight that require the Tánaiste's urgent attention.

I agree with my colleague. It is vital now that the Tánaiste steps in to convene a meeting with KPMG and the workers and their unions to resolve this matter. It has been going on for six months. We need the Government to step in now because my worry is that this could escalate next week. We need it resolved now.

The shameful behaviour of KPMG in sending a notice to the union representatives of the Debenhams workers stating it would not try to remove stock this week and that it would give two hours' notice, and then in the dead of night sending people in to remove stock, is absolutely shameful but typical of the way in which KPMG has treated these workers. The Government has said it has sympathy for the workers. I remind the Tánaiste that the Taoiseach said he did not believe there should be strike-breaking in respect of Debenhams. The Tánaiste should therefore condemn what KPMG has done. He should call on anybody who has any respect for these workers not to cross the picket line and not to put them in the position of facing possible jailing. He should immediately convene a meeting with the shop stewards and other union representatives and KPMG, chaired by the Government, in order to prevent these workers from ending up in jail.

People in Limerick have picketed Debenhams for their rights. The Government should stand up. I have asked it before, and I am asking it again, to stand up and protect the workers. They are not looking for a massive payout; they are just looking for what they are entitled to. KPMG is disgracing the Government. Our Government must stand up and send a clear message to KPMG. Our workers - the ones we are here to protect and the ones who have paid taxes for years in this country - are now turning to our Government to stand up for them. Many people in this House are standing up for them. Why can our Government not do so?

On behalf of the Government, I congratulate John on his retirement and thank him for his wonderful service down the years. It has been great to have him looking after us and watching out for us ever since I have been a Teachta Dála. We wish him and his family the very best in his retirement and thank him so much.

The Debenhams issue is a matter before the courts. Of course I would condemn any breach of any court order or written assurance. I have not seen such a written assurance - I have to add that caveat - but if one has been broken, any right-thinking person would condemn the breach of a court order or a written assurance offered in good faith. There is regular engagement with the unions, with Mandate, as recently as Monday, I think. Ministers have met the union, and I have been in direct contact with Debenhams UK, which, as the House will be aware, was the parent company but which has largely walked away at this stage. As for any engagement between the Government and KPMG, it should be borne in mind that this is a liquidation process, a court-sponsored process, and there are limitations to the extent to which the Government can intervene in a court process.

I too wish John the very best on his retirement. I hope there will be a day when I will meet him once more at the Kilmacud sevens, when Portroe wins it once more.

I wish to raise the issue of rapid testing.

I raised the issue of masks versus visors before and, in fairness, the Taoiseach last night outlined how there is now going to be a communication strategy as to why visors are, effectively, a waste of time compared face masks.

What is the Government's strategy as regards rapid testing? I hold in my hand a rapid test I have taken. It took ten minutes. These are cheap, by all accounts, costing approximately €5. Why has it taken so long for the expert advisory group to sign off on these? They are not a panacea but they are part of a mix as regards population testing to help organisations and to help with travel. They can form a process by which people can have a passport for a number of days or weeks. What is holding it up? The Taoiseach told us during the week that a massive document was done. Where is the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC? Where is HIQA? Where is the advisory group chaired by Dr. Cillian De Gascun? Why is it taking so long unlike every other country?

The Deputy talked about the HSE. I have had calls from non-essential HSE staff who have been told they are not allowed to work from home, despite the current situation with the rise in the number of cases.

That is not the same matter.

My understanding is there is a ban in respect of HSE staff, regardless of whether they are essential or not.

It is not the same matter.

I said the HPSC.

It is not the same matter.

It is similar. I need to get an answer as it serious, especially with the rise in the number of cases. I will repeat my question. I have had calls from non-essential HSE staff who have been told they are not allowed to work from home, despite the current situation with the rise in the number of cases.

Deputy, please, many other people are trying to get in.

The Tánaiste might come back to me on that as it is serious. If NPHET is going by these rules and we must abide by them, then it is important.

Regarding face coverings, the advice we are offering the public is that face masks and face coverings are vastly superior to visors, which are not particularly effective. There are certain circumstances when people genuinely cannot wear a face mask or face covering. They are few, however, and in all other instances we advise people to use a face mask and not a visor which is not particularly effective.

Those with underlying conditions may wear visors.

The Deputy is correct. There are particular exception and circumstances.

With regard to rapid testing, I share the Deputy Kelly's view. Rapid testing, antigen testing, has a role to play in getting on top of this virus. Unlike polymerase chain reaction, PCR, which costs nearly €150 to €200 per go, rapid testing is approximately €5 to €10 and one gets a result quickly. It could be helpful in screening visitors to nursing homes, people in hospitals, hospital staff, and potentially, for travel. The Deputy and I probably see the potential for and agree on this and know other countries are using this, including countries such as Germany, for example, that are good at managing the pandemic.

As things stand, HIQA has done a health technology assessment on this. I have not had sight of it yet. I understand NPHET and the advisory committee are giving it consideration and have yet to come a decision as to whether they believe antigen testing has a role to play in Ireland. I will, however, encourage them to make that decision as quickly as possible. Decisions were made slowly on face coverings. They should not be made slowly on this.

On behalf of the Social Democrats I too thank John for his work and wish him the best for the future.

In the budget this week, an additional three weeks' parental benefit was allocated, which is welcome. I am aware, however, that many parents were disappointed that it will only apply from April. As the Tánaiste will be aware, parents with children under the age of one are finding it particularly difficult to find childcare and there are many constraints on them at the moment. Will the Government consider applying that benefit from January rather than waiting until April?

I will have to speak to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, about that and see whether it can be accommodated within her budget. There are administrative issues every time one changes a social welfare scheme such as this. However, the sooner it can be introduced, the better. I hear what the Deputy is saying in that regard. I will speak to the Minister about it and see if that is possible. There may be good reasons, other than money, that it cannot be done before that. Obviously, we need legislation. I am sure we can do that before Christmas so I will certainly take it up with the Minister.

There is an ugly and frenzied rush to push through legislation on the mother and baby homes. Imagine the optics of this for the hundreds and thousands of victims and their families that legislation is to be amended by Members of this House before 2 o'clock tomorrow when it has not even passed through the Seanad. This is utterly disrespectful to the Senators. The Tánaiste ticked me off some time ago about disrespecting Senators. He is disrespecting the Seanad and, indeed, this House by pushing through this legislation in a hurried manner. More important, however, it shows utter disrespect to the victims and their families. Whatever the rights and wrongs about way the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs wants to archive these files, we have not been given the time to look at it, talk about it and amend it properly. He is breaking all the rules of the Houses by rushing it through.

Will the Tánaiste please ensure that a minimum level of proper legislative scrutiny is given to this? I do not mean pre-legislative scrutiny but enough time for us to be able to amend it having been amended by the Senators. It is, to say the least, unseemly to the victims and their families and the Tánaiste, like all of us, has been inundated with emails. Imagine the panic and the disrespect they feel. Apologies are no good when the Tánaiste does this sort of thing.

I raised this issue here before and asked for report to be published. We welcome the publication of the report of the mother and baby homes commission. I have spoken to many of the survivors and their families who are hurt that there is a risk their records will be locked away for 30 years. The survivors of these homes deserve to know the full truth of what went on and deserve to have an input on how their records are dealt with.

Members may remember last year dealing with the contentious Retention of Records Bill regarding the Ryan commission records. The Oireachtas education committee recommended that survivors who engaged and submitted their testimonies should have access to their own records. I ask the Tánaiste to listen to the thousands of survivors and their families who have contacted us over the past few days. Do not add further insult to what they have suffered by locking away their records for another 30 years. Change the legislation. Help those who are hurt, such as those who were in Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea in my country of Tipperary and in other homes throughout the country who suffered horribly. There can be no more cover-ups and no more hiding away records about this shameful period in our history.

The business of the House is ordered by the Business Committee. It is not in my power to change that.

Everybody objected except the Government.

I am advised the legislation is being brought forward in the Seanad to provide urgent and critical legal clarity surrounding the future of a database compiled by the mother and baby homes commission. The Bill is being brought forward to preserve invaluable information and not to put it beyond reach, as is being reported. The Bill will make it possible for the database that has been compiled by the commission to be accessible under current legislation and to make it available for use under future birth information and tracing legislation.

The question was why is it being rushed.

On behalf of Regional Group, I wish the Captain of the Guard, Mr. John Flaherty, the very best of luck in the future. I had the honour of serving in the Defence Forces with him back in the 1980s and representing the Defence Forces' GAA team in Australia. I wish him and his family the best of luck going forward.

Last month, the British Prime Minister set a deadline of 15 October for an agreement on the trade agreement with the EU, which is today. Given that the Prime Minister, Mr. Johnson, publicly stated that if we cannot agree it, he does not see there will be a free trade agreement between us and we should both accept that and move on, can the Tánaiste give the House an update on the negotiation?

Can the Tánaiste confirm that preparations are in place in the event of a no-deal Brexit and there will be no physical custom checks at the Border? Will cross-Border workers be affected? Will cross-Border agencies be affected? In the event of a no-deal Brexit, will we revert back to the WTO terms? I am in daily contact with many businesses along the Border which are extremely concerned that preparations are not in place for the hard border and we are sleepwalking into a dangerous and potentially damage situation.

The negotiations are ongoing. We do not accept any artificial deadline and negotiations will continue between the European Union and the UK on a free trade agreement. Preparations largely led by my Department are being made to prepare businesses for the changes that will take place no matter what on 1 January when the UK leaves the Single Market and the customs union. I wrote to every business - all one quarter of a million of them - personally last week setting out exactly what they need to do to prepare for the changes and how they can get advice and financial support from Government to do so.

No preparations are being made for a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland because there will not be one. No preparations are being made in that regard. If, however, the UK leaves the Single Market and customs union without a free trade agreement, then we will trade with Britain on WTO terms.

On my own behalf and that of the Rural Independent Group, I pay fulsome tribute to the Captain of the Guard, Mr. Flaherty, on his retirement. I thank him for his sincere and genuine engagement with Members, staff and everybody else over the years. I have known him for the last 14 years. I wish him a happy and successful retirement.

I have a constituent who, like many others, took his driving test last January and unfortunately failed it. He was due to retake it in February but could not due to the pandemic. Now he cannot get a test and many other people cannot get licences. His father has to drive him to Waterford every day for college and now they are being stopped at checkpoints. His father has gone back to work now as he is a múinteoir scoile. There are many elderly people and ordinary people who are driving but their licences cannot be renewed now. There was a chance given in March for people to get a waiver until the end of August but that has ended. Will the Tánaiste ask the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, to extend the timeframe again for people because of the huge backlog? I am not blaming the people in the National Driver Licence Service. I also ask the Tánaiste if he will ask the Minister for Transport to look at giving young drivers who have done the required number of lessons and can get a sign-off from their instructor a chance to drive unaccompanied in this time of serious pandemic when there are not supposed to be two or more people in a car. It is a very serious situation for people who cannot go to college or to work. They are advised not to take public transport but there are many others as well who cannot get the licence for work or have grandchildren to take to school. I ask the Tánaiste if he will ask the Minister of State to extend the moratorium.

I will have to come back to the Deputy on that. I will ask the Minister of State to correspond directly with him on it.

There was a big sigh of relief when it was announced in the budget that the Christmas bonus will be paid this year at 100%. There was also an announcement that it will be extended to those on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and those on jobseeker's allowance but there is an added qualification in that a person will need to have been on the payment for four months. Does that mean that people in Dublin who may have lost their jobs on 18 or 19 September when level 3 restrictions were imposed will not get the payment? Does that mean that people in County Donegal who may have lost their jobs and gone on the PUP on 25 September will not get the bonus payment? Will the same be true for people in counties Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan where level 4 restrictions will be in place from tonight? This has to be looked at and addressed and everybody who is on jobseeker's allowance or the PUP should be getting the bonus payment this Christmas.

At the moment, and indeed for many years, the Christmas bonus is paid to pensioners and to those who are on a long-term social welfare payment for more than 15 months. In the budget we changed this so that the Christmas bonus will now be available to anyone who has been on the PUP or jobseeker's allowance for four of the last nine months. As such it is being opened up to many hundreds of thousands of people who would not have received it previously.

The Tánaiste mentioned rapid testing and some of the work that has been done. Last week the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, spoke about HIQA operating a number of pilot schemes for antigen testing running in parallel with polymerase chain reaction, PCR, testing. He answered this question when people raised the traffic light system we have signed up to. I assume it is absolutely vital we get this sorted from the point of view of travel but also to ensure we have capacity. We have already heard about the difficulties with testing, tracing and isolating.

I wish to address the same issue. It relates to Cork Airport and the loss of Ryanair jobs there. There is a call from the airport stakeholders that the EU's traffic light system for international travel be adopted because that would give a fighting chance to airports like those at Cork and Shannon. I raised this issue last week and ask again that the Cabinet give the green light to this system as soon as possible to give airports like Cork Airport a fighting chance so we can grow the routes again. I express my solidarity with the Ryanair workers at Cork Airport and Shannon Airport who are now in a very precarious postilion, as are workers in other airlines. While the package of measures - some €10 million for the two regional airports - announced by the Government is welcome, I ask the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Cabinet to look at this again. It is vital that a decision on the implementation of the EU traffic light system for international travel be made as quickly as possible.

I will deal with the two matters separately. On the matter raised by Deputy Sherlock, the news that Ryanair is closing its bases at Cork Airport and Shannon Airport for the winter comes as a huge blow to Cork and Shannon, to both regions and particularly to staff in the airports and the Ryanair staff affected. It is happening as a consequence of the fact that so few people are travelling now due to the pandemic and also in part because of the very strict travel rules we have put in place. These rules have been put in place for good reason, for reasons of public health. We want to get flying again, we want our airports to be busy again and we want all of these people to get back to work as soon as possible. For that reason the Government will next week consider whether we opt into the new EU traffic light system which was agreed at a European level only this week. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, attended those meetings and it was adopted at European level. We will decide next week whether we formally opt into it. While that is not going to get planes flying again over the winter period - they probably should not be - it at least means that if the pandemic goes back into retreat we will have a safe system in place for the summer period. No system will be 100% safe but there are systems which can be much safer.

On Deputy Ó Murchú's question, when it comes to rapid testing, be it loop-mediated isothermal amplification, LAMP, or antigen testing, it is acknowledged that they are not as sensitive or specific as PCR testing which is the gold standard. However HIQA has done a health technology assessment on it and that will help us to determine what role rapid testing may have to play in our fight against the virus. That is being considered by NPHET at the moment and I look forward to an early consideration of it and decision on it because it is important.

I want to raise the issue of narcolepsy. Following an alleged bad batch of the swine flu vaccine a decade ago, over 90 people have taken claims against the HSE. They claim this bad batch resulted in them developing narcolepsy. Four of them are from my own County Tipperary. Narcolepsy is a chronic neurological disorder which impairs the brain's ability to regulate its sleep-wake cycle normally. The State brought the first claim to court before settling. This cost the State approximately €10 million, which was a multiple of the award to the claimant. Now there are over 90 cases of people taking similar claims that the State is refusing to settle. These people's way of life has been drastically altered as a result of developing narcolepsy. The State needs to stop dragging its heels on this and making life even more difficult for these people than it already is. They are entitled to compensation without the hassle and anxiety of High Court proceedings.

As these cases are before the courts, perhaps the less I say about them the better. The case mentioned by the Deputy was settled without admission of liability. The person taking the case withdrew most of her claims and it was settled on that basis, unfortunately with the vast majority of the money going to legal people rather than the person who was affected. However, perhaps it sets a template by which the State Claims Agency can settle the other cases quickly and I certainly encourage the agency to settle cases as quickly as possible.

According to page 63 of the programme for Government, "This Government believes An Post has untapped potential to do more and make a further significant contribution across many areas of public, business and community life in Ireland." What are the Government's plans to prevent further post office closures? Post offices are essential services in our rural towns and villages. I recently found out from helping a constituent that just three post offices in County Kildare and one in County Laois provide the free address service to homeless people. Will this service be expanded to more post offices to make it easier to access?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. An Post has transformed as a company in recent years. A few years ago, it was losing a lot of money but it has really transformed its business and its service since then. The whole parcel delivery service has become very lucrative for it and of course it is getting back into financial services and banking. As such I am very encouraged by the transformation and changes that have happened in An Post in recent years.

I totally agree that our network of local and rural post offices is an important part of our community fabric and we want to retain as many as are viable. In terms of the details of future plans, it would probably be best if I were to ask the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to come back to the Deputy on that.

Today is international pregnancy and infant loss remembrance day and I want to highlight it in the Dáil on behalf of all of the people we know who have experienced the pain and loss of losing a baby at an early, middle or late stage of pregnancy, during birth or in the immediate neonatal period. We all know that the shock and pain of losing any family member is one of the worst of life's experiences but there really are few traumas or sadnesses like the loss of an infant. What compounds it is that it happens so often in private and in secret and without the usual recognition we get for losing family members. I want to highlight it today.

It was very heartening to see so much being made available for the national maternity strategy in the budget and I thank the Tánaiste for this. Will he highlight within it the importance of sensitivity in communication by doctors? As a medical professional, he knows how important this is. I have spoken to many women who have gone through this without the sensitivity of medical professionals or public health nurses and without follow-up mental health supports.

I thank Deputy Carroll MacNeill for raising the issue of pregnancy loss and infant loss. I know it is a deeply traumatic experience for so many people whom we know. When I was the Minister for Health, I had the privilege of producing Ireland's first national maternity strategy, which is being implemented and there is funding for it in the budget, which I am delighted to see. The Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, managed to secure more funding for it than I did and I welcome the fact this is happening. Part of the strategy involves improving the responsiveness of our health service in these situations and training doctors, midwives and health professionals on how better to break bad news and deal with bad news such as this. It involves the appointment of bereavement midwives who specialise in this. A number of them exist already and we need more. As well as this there are small things that matter, such as the right room. It can be very difficult for somebody to find out the baby she is carrying has died or will not survive in a ward where she can hear the sound of newborn babies. All of these little things can really make a difference. We have a pathway to really improve how we treat people in these scenarios.

Meath County Council has 3,300 units in its housing stock. The disabled persons improvement grant announced on 9 September was €260,363 and last year it was €269,500. It is a very small grant given the amount of housing stock Meath County Council is dealing with. Can it be increased? Local authorities must come up with 20% matched funding for grants with regard to older people and people with disabilities. This is an awful drain on resources and is crippling local authorities. Last year, Meath County Council received an additional €200,000 for windows and doors. This year it received no additional money. The local authority did not look for it because it was not able to match 20% of the funding because it would have been an awful drain on resources. The Tánaiste knows, and if he does not another Minister will, that Meath County Council is the lowest funded local authority in Ireland from central government funding. I ask for this to be addressed.

The budget announced on Tuesday provides an extra €36 million for local authorities. I do not know exactly how it will be allocated. I will ask the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, to come back to the Deputy with more information on it and to respond to his query directly.

I want to raise an issue with regard to Clare County Council. I have been contacted by a gentleman who is wheelchair bound and who claims the disability allowance. He has suffered many personal difficulties and has now been told he has reached the end of the road with regard to local authority services for one reason or another. This situation is leaving someone in a wheelchair homeless. His only bit of luck was to get a room in a hotel fairly cheaply because of Covid. We need to ensure extra supports are available for vulnerable people such as this man.

I thank the Deputy. I am afraid I am not familiar with the individual case so I am not able to comment on it but if the Deputy provides the details to my office or to the office of the Minister we will follow up on it.

The change in the pupil-teacher ratio announced on Tuesday was very welcome. I am sure the Tánaiste will agree that the power and funding of the Department of Education and Skills would be best channelled to infants in disadvantaged schools. The anomaly we have now is that no disadvantaged primary school with infants will benefit from the change in the pupil-teacher ratio because the staffing schedule for DEIS schools is different from that for mainstream schools. I ask for a change to be made as soon as possible. I am sure the Tánaiste will agree that if mainstream schools can benefit from a change in the pupil-teacher ratio from 26:1 to 25:1 it would be rather remarkable that disadvantaged schools dealing with infants only or vertical schools with infants in them would not benefit from the same change in class sizes or the pupil-teacher ratio. It is an anomaly and I am sure it is an oversight but it is deeply unfair. Will the Government correct this anomaly and ensure every school benefits from the change in the pupil-teacher ratio?

I will certainly take it up with the Minister, Deputy Foley. I do not have detailed knowledge of exactly how the staffing schedule works. I will certainly let the Minister know the Deputy has raised it and ask her to come back to him on it. I understand the point he is making but it is equally worth pointing out that most disadvantaged children do not attend DEIS schools. DEIS schools are disadvantaged but many disadvantaged children do not attend DEIS schools and we need to bear this in mind also.

The Tánaiste is aware of the situation with the Be On Call for Ireland programme through which an awful lot of people volunteered to go back to work and assist. It is something that everybody thought was a wonderful idea but, unfortunately, the experience of many people called up has been very negative. A healthcare professional in my constituency signed a contract for a number of months but received only intermittent work and since October has had no work. She has had to go onto jobseeker's allowance, which means she must send a letter to the company with the details of the odd day she works. She gets one or two days' work a week. Recently, she was offered two days' work in Donegal, which would have involved a 150 km round trip but she would have received no money for travel expenses. It has been a very negative experience and has created a lot of cynicism among many people who went forward for it. This is very regrettable. This issue needs to be dealt with and affirmative action needs to be taken to reassure these people they are valued by the health service and that they will be given proper contracts of employment.

It is fair to say the scheme did not work out as well as we expected or hoped. Notwithstanding this, more than 5,000 people were recruited to our public health service this year, including 800 doctors, 800 nurses and 1,600 therapists, healthcare professionals and healthcare workers. A lot of direct recruitment has happened in the past eight or nine months. In the budget announced this week, the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, secured funding to recruit and hire directly, and not through an agency, 15,000 additional staff for the health service, which is huge. It will increase our public health workforce by more than 10% in one year. It is a phenomenal amount of money. It could really result in a step change in staffing levels throughout the health service in hospitals and in the community.

Deputy Gould has been indicating but he can only come in once on promised legislation.

We will now take a 20-minute sanitisation break.

Sitting suspended at 1.09 p.m. and resumed at 1.32 p.m.