Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

A total of 31 Deputies have indicated they wish to ask questions, including eight carried forward from yesterday.

We are all agreed that the manner in which the Debenhams workers have been treated by their former employer is a shame and a disgrace. This week, Members from across the House, including ourselves in Sinn Féin, Solidarity - People Before Profit, the Labour Party, the Social Democrats, the Independent Group, the Rural Independent Group and others have come together to call on the Government to intervene. We agree that the actions of KPMG are wrong. When workers in this country go looking for their rights, they should not be taken to court and there is now a need for an urgent intervention from the Taoiseach because a resolution to this dispute is possible. The High Court has recognised the scope for engagement between KPMG and workers to this end. Yesterday, the Taoiseach said he was willing to convene a meeting between KPMG and the workers' representatives. I would like him to state today when he will convene that meeting.

Notwithstanding other issues, I have been engaged with, and in regular contact with, workers. On Debenhams, I am concerned about the situation and would like to have it resolved without any further pressures on the workers, given that they have been picketing for quite a long time in trying conditions and in adverse weather. There have been constraints on the degree to which the Government can interfere in a liquidation process and, indeed, in a legal process. That said, the Tánaiste and the Ministers of State at the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputies English and Troy, have been endeavouring to see what can be done. I have also sought, in the widest sense, to see if avenues could be pursued that could lead to a resolution of this. I know Mandate has been working hard on this and, to be fair, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, has also maintained a watchful and helpful engagement on this to see if there are ways we can resolve this. At this stage, I would prefer to leave it at that. I ask the Deputy for space to see if we can get this resolved.

I want to raise a sensitive issue with the Taoiseach. Some people believe that during a pandemic or a crisis, there are times when they push on with other things because they will not get enough notice. On 2 September, the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, met online with the 221+ group regarding the CervicalCheck tribunal. The group expressed all of its concerns and said it was a positive meeting. The Minister has issued a letter to the group in the last 24 hours in which he says he is going ahead with the tribunal from next week, in the middle of a level 5 pandemic, despite the fact he has addressed none of their concerns. I am not going to let him do that and bury this. He has not taken on any of the issues the 221+ group raised, such as being non-adversarial; allowing women who have recurrences of cancer to go back to the tribunal; why labs have to be brought into it has also not been addressed; a guarantee the HSE will not object; the time period of nine months is being put on the tribunal; and how the Statute of Limitations is affecting the women. All six of those issues were sincerely raised with the Minister but they were ignored. Going ahead with this tribunal next week is the wrong thing to do. I ask the Taoiseach to speak to the Minister and to ensure these issues are addressed. Otherwise Vicky Phelan and Lorraine Walsh will be telling every woman affected and their families to ignore it.

That is not the way to proceed either. I have no difficulty asking the Minister to meet the Deputy because he has met the 221+ group. His understanding was that he could proceed with the tribunal because a lot of people were complaining about the delay in getting it up and running. That has been a complaint for a number of months.

That was the original, understandable and justifiable complaint. For the past while we have been doing everything we possibly can to get the nuts and bolts in place-----

By ignoring the matter.

-----to get the tribunal established and do things in a non-adversarial way. I will talk to the Minister. If there are issues, they can be dealt with and resolved.

They are the same issues that were there in September.

I revert to the legislation on the commission of investigation into mother and baby homes that is to go through the House tonight. In an exchange yesterday with Deputy Cairns, the Taoiseach mentioned the fact that the Government was not seeking to seal the records and asked us to accept his bona fides on that. That statement directly contradicted statements made by the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, on radio earlier, for example, and statements he has made in the past to the effect that the Government has to seal the records for 30 years in accordance with the 2004 Act. Is it the Taoiseach's understanding that the 2004 Act is superseded by EU law, in particular that which pertains to the Charter of Fundamental Rights and GDPR practice as they relate to this legislation?

To put a context on what I said yesterday and what I have been saying for the past while about the Bill, it is caused by, and necessary to deal with, the very pressing deadline for the winding up of the commission itself, which could allow for the destruction or non-availability of the documents in question.

Yesterday the Taoiseach said it would not.

Please, Deputy Smith.

Deputy Gannon asked a question. I would like an opportunity to reply without the ongoing heckling from the Deputy opposite, which is not constructive. There could be further legislation. There has been an ongoing issue, apart from this issue, with access to records, which was debated in the previous Dáil with the then Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and which was not quite resolved. In my view, there is a desire to try to get this resolved after this legislation, which preserves the records, is dealt with. It is not the case that this is the legislation on its own and that is the end of the matter. That is my understanding of how the Minister sees this.

Early this morning I stood with workers at the Debenhams picket line in Blackrock along with shop stewards, workers from other Debenhams stores across the city who came to their aid and many from the local area and beyond supporting them and was witness to strikebreakers from KPMG arriving, attempting to enter the store to remove assets and break the Debenhams picket line. They acted in quite an aggressive manner against a peaceful, socially distanced protest. It was an appalling vista. The women strikers, who have worked for years, paid tax and played by all the rules were put in an invidious position, surrounded by gardaí. In fairness, they did not intervene, but the workers asked why they were there and pointed out that they are not criminals but are just fighting for their jobs, fair redundancy and decent treatment at the hands of a company that has treated them appallingly. All of them asked again and again why the Taoiseach will not get off the fence, intervene on their behalf and do the simple thing of calling in KPMG, asking them to stop behaving in this way, asking them publicly to stop trying to break the strike and holding a meeting with the shop stewards, the workers and KPMG.

There is a more serious issue at stake here because from midnight tonight we go into level 5. The State needs to declare that the removal of stock from Debenhams is non-essential work that does not fall into the category of what is allowed to be taken on over the next six weeks. The only beneficiaries of the removal of this stock are KPMG itself, which may get enough money to be paid whatever big sum it gets, and the State and the Government, which is refusing to forgo their payment back to allow the workers to receive proper redundancy. The Government needs to declare that the work KPMG seems intent on carrying out in removing stock from Debenhams is not legal over the next six-week period. That needs to be said to KPMG at the very minimum.

In my view, the action taken this morning is not necessary and should not happen right now, but calling in KPMG on its own will not solve this. In the first phase, when efforts were made to resolve this by some parties, €1 million emerged on the table out of the process. How do the Deputies think that €1 million would be realised?

We can keep looking for declarations of this and declarations of that. That will not resolve the problem. The Government has to make sure that whatever happens does not create new precedents elsewhere or allow certain employments and certain rogue employers, for want of a better term, in the future to just land everything on the State. That cannot happen either. I am not saying that is the case here. The company is in liquidation. I do not like the way the workers have been treated from the get-go. There should be stronger legislation to provide underpinning for collective agreements into the future in order that workers get their fair share along with others. I understand and have no issue with the motivation of the Deputies in trying to get a resolution to this. As for the precise mechanisms to enable us to do that, we are pursuing to see what can be done.

Answer my question, please.

My view is-----

I call Deputy Verona Murphy.

There is proposed legislation to introduce fines for breaches of restrictions the Government has put in place to deal with Covid-19, when in effect the biggest contributing factor is the Government's inability to set up an effective contact tracing model. In the face of assurances in May from the then Taoiseach and now Tánaiste, it was stated that the method of living with Covid would be to isolate, test, trace and treat. What is the plan for six weeks' time to ensure we can live with Covid-19? What legislation does the Government intend to bring forward to underpin that plan, and at what stage will the plan be laid before the House?

I discussed this earlier. Essentially, the plan is to build up a permanent workforce of contact tracers, close to 800, whose sole function will be contact tracing. In the intervening period, as of this week, the HSE said it has restructured its call system to make sure that its contact tracers can deal with 1,500 positive cases a day. On the swabbing side, 1,000 swabbers will be the permanent workforce in community swabbing, and there will be up to 800 in contact tracing. That is the plan. The HSE has been recruiting for quite some time to get the numbers up to that level, which is way in excess of what was there in the first phase. The testing is up to 115,000 now. The testing capacity is at 120,000. Community transmission is at a high level and was at a particularly high level over the weekend, which did put contact tracing under very significant strain, resulting in the measures that were taken.

During the previous lockdown people with disabilities, special needs children and adults, were left behind, and now, as we face into another lockdown, they are still left behind. I wish to speak about a mother who contacted me. I raised this here on 21 September, and now it is 21 October and there is still no sign of a place for her adult child. She went to Scoil Chormaic in Cashel, an excellent school. They do great work there, but there is no place for her child because the Brothers of Charity, who want to give the child a place, cannot get the funding from the HSE. There are many young adults and children with disabilities totally sidelined and marginalised. Their parents and carers are at their wits' end because these young adults and children need the stimulation of a school trip or school visit and the whole engagement and work that goes on there. I salute the front-line workers, but this is shocking, and the Taoiseach knows it. The HSE has dragged its feet all along and is not fit for purpose. People are being left behind and they are the most marginalised of all.

Resourcing has been made available through the HSE to the service providers to make sure they can continue restoring services for adults with disabilities. Notwithstanding going to level 5, it is our view that these services should be maintained to enable these adults to avail of the services. I agree with the Deputy on Scoil Chormaic. I have fond memories of visiting the school, both as Minister for Education and more recently, last year. It is a wonderful centre and does great work through a very good ethos. We will continue to do what we can within the constraints of the transmission of the virus to provide services for those whose difficulties the Deputy has raised.

Deputy McNamara will speak on the same matter. Level 5 is to come in tonight. I wish to make a plea with the Taoiseach in respect of the livestock sector, where the weanling calves are coming on market in large numbers.

In fairness, over the past few months all the marts have run the show online but also ensured that people on site practised safe social distancing. There is now a situation whereby broadband has become a major problem and has broken down at several marts. At least when there was social distancing, there would only have been approximately 25 people in the whole area of a mart when cattle were being brought in. Will the Taoiseach please look at that matter this evening? It will be detrimental to the trade in weanlings and to our exports if this matter is not looked at before tonight. People will not be able to be near the rings in marts, something that was done in a safe manner up to now. There was 2 m distancing as well as the online option. This morning, approximately 20 marts are experiencing trouble with their broadband connections and it will be at least a month before this is resolved.

The Taoiseach will be aware of the expression "a pig in a poke". Farmers and buyers will not buy a pig in a poke, they will want to go and inspect the cattle they are buying. In so doing, there will be more contacts between people than there would be if marts were allowed to continue to operate as they are now under the restrictions. I ask, therefore, that the Taoiseach think about allowing marts to remain open.

On a related matter, this whole move to online is not the panacea it is being presented as. Even clothes shops with an online presence, such as Patrick Bourke Menswear in Ennis, are distraught at what is happening because once people go online it drives business out of the country to Amazon and foreign firms.

I wrote to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine this morning about this issue and asked that there be some limited numbers of people be allowed around the rings at our marts. There is a major issue with broadband infrastructure. I spoke to one mart manager yesterday whose Internet connection is poor. Farmers and buyers at home simply do not have the necessary broadband. I appreciate that we cannot have concessions for everything in the context of these new restrictions but we are talking about farmers' livelihoods. We need to support them and their families at this most difficult time. As has been stated, marts have gone above and beyond to make sure that social distancing is in place. I ask that the Taoiseach look at this matter and that what is proposed be reconsidered.

I remind Members to social distance and to wear their masks.

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. We are moving to level 5 at midnight for six weeks. Many sectors are already identifying themselves as being capable of operating safely. This will be a difficult and tough six weeks. There was an oversight meeting of Departments this morning to make it clear to many Departments that we want level 5 work. The capacity to create exemptions in respect of different sectors just does not exist. People are looking for different exemptions in different areas.

There will be more mixing than would be the case with social distancing.

I am making a general point. To be fair, I appreciate that Deputy McNamara has his own views on level 5. We come from different perspectives.

The Taoiseach said that there will be more mixing, not less.

I am simply making the point that we have been given advice. I accept the advice fully in terms of moving to level 5 for six weeks.

When was the last time NPHET representatives were in a mart or in a hospital for that matter?

It will be tough and difficult but the key objective is to get our numbers and incidence rate down so we can reopen. Many sectors, retail and others, are saying that they could operate safely.

We have had much discussion on capacity as regards testing, tracing and isolating. We have a particular problem with regard to tracing at this point. Regardless of what happened in the past, this needs to be remedied. I have particular questions about rapid testing. Approximately two weeks ago, the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, spoke here about a number of pilots that were being carried out in parallel with polymerase chain reaction, PCR, testing for antigen. What is the set-up with that? We also know about the National Virus Reference Laboratory, NVRL, doing testing with regard to loop-mediated isothermal amplification, LAMP. I really want to know about those antigen pilots. What is the timeline and the methodology in the context of validation? These will add to our capacity as regards dealing with the problems relating to air travel and also those relating to schools. We need quicker turnaround.

Deputy Buckley wishes to contribute on the same matter.

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Chomhairle.

We cannot hear the Deputy up there. He will need to come down into the Chamber. While we wait for Deputy Buckley to come down, Deputies Murnane O'Connor and Higgins will speak.

I will also wish to raise the issue of testing and tracing. On Friday, a child at a school in County Carlow was diagnosed with Covid-19. The pod, of course, was sent home straight away and the school showed excellent compliance. The school, however, rang the HSE on the Friday which immediately referred it to a Dublin number. The person at the Dublin number rang back and said no nurses were available. On Saturday and Sunday, again, they contacted the public health team and on Sunday evening they had to contact the local GP. They were tested on Monday and told that there could be five-day delay for the results. I worry about this because it is a school but there is another case about which I am extremely worried. Again, on Friday, a lady in County Carlow and her baby were diagnosed with Covid-19. She was asked to give her contact list, which she gave to the HSE that day. On Monday she rang me with the list and I contacted the HSE. Today, six days on from her diagnosis, the people on her list are only being tested. I worry people are being asked to give their lists. The contact tracing list is not going to work. There is such confusion. Perhaps the Taoiseach will check on this matter for me to see if it can be handled better.

Scientists are to the forefront when it comes to helping us in the fight against Covid-19. The antigen tests that have been developed and are being rolled out in other countries have proven successful. Can we got an update on how this is going to be introduced in Ireland? Is HIQA is doing testing on the tests? After we emerge from this lockdown, will we be in a place to be able to use antigen testing collaboratively along with our usual testing in test centres?

I do not want to sound alarmist but I have been contacted by family member whose brother went to hospital in Cork the day before yesterday to get tested because he has underlying problems with multiple sclerosis. He went through the full process and when he asked when he would get the results, he was told to go home and that the hospital would mark him down as a positive test. In two more instances, two people filled out the forms at the drive-through testing centre, waited for over three hours and then left. They received text messages later in the day.

Which hospital in Cork?

I believe it was Cork University Hospital, CUH.

He went to get tested in CUH.

I believe it was CUH. I am not 100% but it was one of the hospitals in Cork. I believe the drive-in test centre where two people waited too long and left, and a number of hours later got a text back to say they tested positive, is in Carrigtwohill.

Many people out there are frightened. Can we get clarity on what are serious results relating to Covid and on the nature of results relating to people who are asymptomatic? Finally, can we assure the elderly and those with underlying problems that, despite the situation we are in, the mortality rate is not as bad as people believe? The perception that exists means that people are really panicking.

Testing and tracing are the cause of the trouble we are in and why we must go back to level 5 again. Many sick people with other illnesses are suffering because they will have to wait longer. Doctors are out of flu injections. The Government is throwing loads of money at the HSE and there is loads of testing but no tracing. I will ask one serious question. I have asked it twice before and no one has come back to me. Is a member of NPHET involved in testing and is that person benefiting financially from that involvement? The main question is what company is involved and are proper procurement laws being adhered to in the securing of the testing kits?

There are a wide range of questions. First, regarding the original question asked by Deputy Ó Murchú about antigen testing, HIQA produced a major study on this. It has been clinically validated now. I asked again for a report from it through the oversight committee which asked this morning if it could have the report next week in terms of how that is progressing. I am being candid with the Deputy. There has been a policy issue here. Many people on the public health side were not, in the early stages, convinced about the effectiveness or validity of antigen testing. Other countries have adopted it. I mentioned that in an earlier exchange. I am interested in seeing if antigen testing can be an important complement to PCR testing and if it could help in certain settings. When this is clinically validated vis-à-vis PCR and get outcomes, hopefully, we can get some results and some clear trajectory on the direction of travel in terms of the utilisation of antigen testing more quickly than I had been told earlier. That applies to all the questions asked by other Deputies as well.

On the specific cases mentioned by Deputies Murnane O'Connor and Buckley, if the Deputies send me the details, I can talk to the HSE about them. The HSE is meeting all testing demand and 95% of tests are done within the time limits. The contact tracing system came under enormous pressure last week. We are now doing 115,000 tests, as Deputy Danny Healy-Rae mentioned. We now rank 11th highest in the world for testing. We are testing a lot, far more than we tested before.

There has not been adequate tracing all year. That is why we are where we are.

No. Community tracing has improved dramatically as well. There are now far more people working in community tracing than there were previously. Community transmission has been at a very high level for the past number of weeks. The HSE has said it will be able to deal with 1,500 positive cases a day from next week onwards in respect of community tracing.

We have to move on. The Taoiseach might communicate with the other Deputies.

Up to 25 businesses and private residences were destroyed by floods in and around the square and quays areas of Bantry on Monday night. This left tens of thousands of euro worth of damage to property. There is no accountability here. Flood defence works have been promised to the people of Bantry for decades but there has been no delivery. This is the second time Bantry has been severely flooded in two months. The same is true for other parts of west Cork, including Rosscarbery, Rathbarry, Bandon and Skibbereen, to name but a few. The Taoiseach visited Skibbereen himself. Everyone was told they would be entitled to humanitarian aid, as were the people of Cork city yesterday. This is codding the people as private residents and people with insurance will not get a cent. Yesterday, a business in Bantry gave me a letter it got back from the humanitarian aid scheme. It refused the business any money even though the business was destroyed by the floods and had no insurance. The funding that was promised, where I saw politicians handing out forms like they were confetti, is a waste of time. I ask the Taoiseach to address the many destroyed businesses in Bantry or even those in Cork city and beyond. Will he set up a clear compensation package for businesses and private households which have had property worth thousands of euro destroyed?

I thank the Taoiseach for what he has done on this. I mentioned the issue of the Bantry flooding to him yesterday and highlighted the urgency of extending the humanitarian aid support scheme to those businesses. I understand that will happen in Bantry and also in Cork city.

Aside from that, I underline the importance of the flood relief scheme for Bantry. Every time there is a southerly wind and the tide is high, the square in Bantry floods and it is not good enough. This is the second time in two months that the town has flooded and businesses are again mopping up their premises

The Government is codding the people with the humanitarian aid.

Deputy Collins.

I am not finished yet.

I have it here right in front of me.

Please, Deputy Collins.

I urge the Taoiseach to make contact with the Office of Public Works and remind it of the importance of a flood relief scheme for Bantry. The humanitarian aid support scheme should also be rolled out for businesses in Bantry.

The Deputy is codding them again.

Many businesses successfully availed of the scheme.

No, they did not. The Deputy should go down to Bantry and talk to them.

It is always sensationalism with Deputy Collins.

Please save the constituency rivalry for the campaign.

I take exception to Deputy Collins trying to suppress and censor Deputy O'Sullivan. That is not on either. The Deputy always gets an opportunity.

I am telling the truth. Humanitarian aid has been refused to the people of west County Cork.

Allow the Taoiseach to continue without interruption.

I will show the Taoiseach the letter if he wants to see it.

Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan approached me yesterday about Bantry. I ensured that the incorporeal meeting yesterday evening, which was designed to provide for the application of the compensation scheme and the humanitarian scheme for Cork city would also apply to Bantry, as well as to Aghada, Youghal and other areas which suffered as a result of the flooding. That has happened.

On the flood relief schemes, I spoke with the Minister of State with responsibility this area, Deputy Patrick O'Donovan, again yesterday. He contacted me and said there are a lot of objections to schemes across the country and this is delaying the implementation of a number of flood relief schemes. He wants to meet me. I know the situation in Cork, as I from the county. There was a lot of consultation and engagement in Cork but there comes a time, when modifications are made to plans and certain issues are taken on board by authorities, to think of the broader picture and the need for flood relief schemes given the trends of recent years. After what happened yesterday, I am afraid what we are saying today is cold comfort to those who have suffered.

If people have insurance, the insurance companies should pay up.

They will not pay up.

They should pay up.

People have no insurance and the humanitarian aid people did not care either.

The Taoiseach may be aware that in many counties, predominantly rural ones, school transport remains a very vexed issue. There are particular issues with trying to secure concessionary bus passes with children. There are numerous families - I am dealing with over a dozen of them - whose children are eligible for transport but cannot get on the school bus. In many instances, this is because the parents were late in getting their payment in before the 4 August deadline. I know of some parents who were aware of the deadline but simply did not have the money in the week in question as they were buying school books, uniforms and the rest of it. There are also issues with many bus drivers who are concerned we have not been moving quickly enough to the new regime. They are fearful about the arrangements that are in place.

What new regime is the Deputy referring to?

I am referring to the reduced capacity on school buses of 50%, or perhaps even lower. These private operators are driving full school buses. The most important issue is getting children to school. I accept that and I also accept that we need to be flexible in that regard. Will the Taoiseach and the Minister for Education and Skills ensure every child who is eligible for school transport gets a seat on a school bus?

I thank and compliment the people who, for generations, have carried children safely to school, in particular private contractors and others who have travelled safely with children to school. It is very important to acknowledge their great work. Considerable distress has been caused by the 50% reduction in capacity, the lack of clarity from the Department of Education and Skills and the confusion. Our local office in Tralee is doing excellent work. Our local people in Bus Éireann and the staff who work there do excellent work. However, parents have been left in a situation where students who should have access to a bus to travel to school do not have it. There is uncertainty and worry and that should not be the case at a time when families have enough to contend with.

The Minister is doing everything possible to deal with the concessionary ticket situation and also late payments by those eligible for school transport. The overriding consideration has been the implementation of the NPHET recommendation to reduce numbers by 50%. That was given some time ago but it has involved additional expenditure of between €100 million and €120 million. The transport operators, CIÉ and the Department are saying this had to be resolved first by creating the additional capacity required in advance of trying to deal with the concessionary issues in some cases and the eligibility question. It has been an enormous logistical exercise. When the recommendation to reduce numbers was made, we said we were not in a position to implement it immediately because it came a week before schools opened. The Department has been working flat out with the operators to increase capacity and Cabinet has approved the resources to achieve the 50% figure. However, that has slowed down and inhibited the capacity to deal with the other issues we would like to deal with. Believe me, every Deputy in Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Labour Party and other parties involved in this is putting pressure on in relation to school transport. We are doing far more this year than we did last year, by the way, but I take on board what the Deputies are saying and will continue to work on it.

The Taoiseach promised the buses would continue as they were until we had the capability of operating at 50%. He did not fulfil that promise.

That concludes Questions on Promised Legislation. We did not reach 14 Deputies, including five who were carried forward from yesterday.