Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Twenty-six Deputies have already indicated. I ask that we keep the questions and answers concise and we will try to get to everyone.

I want to raise an issue but first let me make this point. It is not a joke. When somebody requests an official secret document from the Tánaiste and he decides to destroy or delete that record and not pass it on to his Department, it is not a joke. I just want to make that point. It is not finished yet. We need those records released: the contract the Minister, Deputy Simon Harris, gave the Tánaiste, the contract he got from the Secretary General and all communication. It should be done at this stage. We have been requesting it for the last 48 hours.

We have been contacted by numerous people who have lost their jobs and have been denied the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, by the Department because the Department has no record of their PRSI contributions. These are people who previously lost their jobs during the first lockdown and were in receipt of PUP. Deputy Claire Kerrane has been informed that over 4,000 applicants were denied on this basis last week alone. I am aware of people who lost their jobs as a result of Covid public health restrictions almost a month ago whose cases were only resolved this week and after a month they only got one week's payments.

I am asking for three things: to establish the number of applicants who were denied PUP due to this issue, to conduct an urgent review of all these cases and ensure they get their payments quickly and then to publish guidelines to employees, employers and departmental staff so there is clarity in this regard.

On the first part, we have the request from the Deputy’s party and we will be happy to give him any records we have. I might ask the Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys, to answer the question on social protection.

The Deputy will appreciate there has been a huge increase in the number of PUP applications in the last number of weeks. The officials in my Department have been working extremely hard in engaging with the applicants in terms of details that were not provided but that we need in order to process the payments. There are a number of applications that we are dealing with. I assure the Deputy we are getting through them as quickly as possible. There were people who claimed but did not have a record, although they did have work, so we are working with them.

We are now going into our third week in level 5 and many people are trying to plan for the unique period around Christmas, which is not something we have experienced before. While the R level is coming down and the numbers are changing, I do not expect the Tánaiste to be in a position today to be able to advise businesses, workers or families as regards what we will be able to do on 1 December when level 5 ends. At this juncture, can he give us an indication on what date the Government will be in a position to give us that indication? It would be very helpful for businesses, workers and families.

Let us be realistic. People who are living in Dublin who have family down the country, possibly fathers or mothers who are living on their own, will travel for Christmas. On what date will we be in a position to do that? I am not asking what it will be, but what date will we be able to do it, so businesses can plan?

Will rapid testing be available and be signed off in regulatory terms by then?

I thank the Deputy. On the second point, HIQA has done a health technology assessment on rapid testing, which the Deputy may have seen. It was not as positive or favourable as I might have hoped it would be. There are definitely pros and cons to rapid testing and NPHET is very much working on that at the moment. I cannot say it will be ready by 1 December and that is probably unlikely, but it is being worked on.

In regard to the first question, things are going very well. The number of new cases is falling faster than we thought it would, and the positivity rate is falling faster than we thought it would and it was down to something over 3% the other day, which was really encouraging. What we are saying very definitely is that level 5 is for six weeks. We want to get the number of cases down as low as possible before easing restrictions. We do not have a decision date yet to tell people what we move to on 1 December. I take the Deputy’s point that businesses need to prepare and families need to be prepared and they will need a few days’ notice, but we have no date as yet.

In accordance with the Equal Status Act, all children should have equal access to courses and facilities in schools where they are available to others. There are approximately 500 teenagers and children across the country who themselves are healthy but who live with medically very high-risk, VHR, parents or siblings. These VHR forgotten families have been lobbying the Minister, Deputy Norma Foley's Department, looking for that equal access to remote learning for their children. Many children do not want to go to school because they are afraid their sibling or their parent might get very sick with Covid if they bring it home, yet they are being denied remote learning.

Can we get this sorted out? It is a case of equality. We are talking about 500 children and, as I said, they are scared to go to school. According to the Department guidelines, they themselves do not have to self-isolate, they have not tested positive for Covid and they do not have serious underlying conditions, but they live with those who do. This is very unfair. Can we get this sorted out?

I thank the Deputy. I am familiar with this issue and I am aware of a constituent of mine who is in a similar position. I will speak to the Minister for Education about it again. What we would like to do, if possible, is to set up some sort of mechanism by which they could join the classroom from home, if that makes any sense. There would be a camera in the classroom and they could join the classroom electronically from home.

At the same time, we need to balance that against the genuine benefits children gain from going to school and being able to socialise and mix with other children, which have to be taken into account as well. I will speak to the Minister about it.

There has been a 33% increase in the reports of thefts of pets to An Garda Síochána this year. Under the current law, pets are considered property and they are treated in the same way as someone stealing a mobile phone. We all know that pets are much more than property. They are very much part of the family in homes throughout this country. They are sometimes the only friend for someone who is isolated and a guide for someone who is blind or has sensory issues. This needs to be clearly reflected in much stronger legislation, especially with the increased demand in the run-in to this Christmas, in particular. The Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud Offences)(Amendment) Bill is going through the Seanad at the moment, and I ask the Government to table an instruction to committee motion under Standing Order 187 to allow the laws of this country to act as a real deterrent against this growing crime and make it clear that we will act to ensure significant penalties are put in place for people who attempt to resell pets or to exploit a vulnerable owner who offers a reward for the return of their pet.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue, which I have read about in the past couple of weeks. It is appalling to see an increase in this crime of people stealing pets off other people, often older and vulnerable people. I do not have a pet but I know many people who do and I do not think anybody regards their cat or their dog to be property in the way they would a mobile phone or something like that. It is almost like a member of the family being stolen. It is a serious offence and needs to be treated that way. I will speak to the Minister for Justice about it and see if we can strengthen laws in those areas.

I have written to the Taoiseach and Deputy Michael Collins and I raised the issue of people not being allowed to attend mass. There is a limit of 25 for a wedding or a funeral and nobody can go to the church for mass. There is a penal provision in the new Act to prosecute priests. This is the month of November, traditionally a time of the year in the Catholic faith where people pray for their dead and have masses. All other denominations are denied their right to worship as well. Will the Tánaiste please look at the regulations in view of the mental and physical health of people?

People need to be able to go to church. For elderly people, especially, it is their only outing. They love it and they can meet their friends. I do not know whether they can walk in and say a prayer but they cannot have a physical celebration of mass. The archbishops met the Taoiseach but it is falling on deaf ears. Will the Tánaiste please reconsider allowing people attend mass? Most churches are as big as this Chamber. Some of them are huge and there is good ventilation. Churches have made huge provisions for dealing with Covid, which have cost them a lot of money and for which they have got no support. People need to be allowed back to worship in all faiths, but I am talking today about the Catholic Church, especially in the month of November.

I thank the Deputy. As he mentioned, the Taoiseach met with the four Catholic archbishops to talk about what might be possible in the next couple of weeks. We are reluctant to change any of the regulations at the moment. I understand the point the Deputy is making about people being able to attend mass. In most countries it is allowed, for obvious reasons. It is allowed north of the Border but nearly every day there is one group or another making a good case as to why the rules should be relaxed, whether it is hunting, coursing, tennis, golf, gyms or children's clothes. We feel that if we start relaxing regulations on a piecemeal basis at the moment, that will undermine what we are trying to achieve and we do not want to do that, certainly at this stage. Level 5 is for six weeks. We made provision to allow people to visit graves. It is November, many people want to visit graves, and that is permitted, even if it is beyond 5 km.

Over recent days, many people in the hospitality sector contacted me to tell me some of their workers who were not able to work have gone on to pharmaceutical or other work, which is a good thing. However, these people are left in a situation where they need to have a plan in place for recruiting new people. They are afraid to take people on because they do not know what will happen for Christmas. I know it is difficult for the Tánaiste to look into the future, but when will there be guidance for the likes of the hospitality sector? Will it be next week or the week after? When will there be guidance on what is going to happen for Christmas and what level they will be at? My understanding of level 3 for the likes of the hotel sector is that it is hardly worth their while opening for Christmas. That is what they are saying. Will the Tánaiste give some forecast within the next week or two to help them in their situation?

It is a fair question and I would love to be able to say here that on 1 December we will to move to level 3 or 2 and give people the ability to plan their lives and businesses, but I am not in a position to do that. This virus can change very quickly. We have seen in the course of a few days or a week the numbers increasing dramatically, and as the CMO explained at the committee the other day, it is just too far away from Christmas or from 1 December for us to be able to give a reliable indication as to what level of restrictions there will be from 1 December. The only thing worse than giving people information is to give misinformation, and if we gave people an indication now as to where we thought we might be on 1 December, there is a good chance that in two or three weeks we might have to turn around and say we cannot do that. When we do give that indication, we want it be one we can stand over, and that is probably going to be nearer to the end of November, unfortunately.

Page 54 of the programme for Government refers to the integrated mental health services provided by non-government organisations. Pieta House was awarded millions in funding this year after it found itself in financial difficulties, with threats of redundancies hanging over staff. It has been brought to my attention by concerned members of the public that the Fine Gael Leader of the Seanad, Senator Regina Doherty, is now a board member of Pieta House. Senator Doherty, according to Pieta’s website, is also a former member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform. The website states that this will provide Pieta House with insights that will be valuable assets to the organisation. Does the Tánaiste believe that the Senator’s membership of a board that receives vast amounts of public funding is a conflict of interest? Is this a paid position? Was the Tánaiste aware of this?

I thank the Deputy. I was not aware of that, but Pieta House is a mental health charity that provides excellent services and help for people who need help around mental health and suicide, in particular. As a Senator, Senator Doherty has no role in deciding what funding a charity receives. She is not a Minister and does not hold executive office. I do not think there is a conflict of interest there but perhaps the Deputy will say otherwise. I am not on any boards but I imagine there are many Deputies and Senators who are on boards and I do not think that in itself is a conflict of interest.

I was contacted this week by the family of a 93-year-old woman who is living alone in a house which is extremely damp and necessitates keeping the heating on constantly. She applied to the better energy warmer homes scheme but she was refused because she had the attic in her house insulated about 20 years ago. This is a very good scheme which aims to improve the energy efficiency and warmth of homes for pensioners and those on lower incomes, and it is also beneficial for the environment. However, it should be on a needs basis and someone should not be refused based on the fact that they applied for a grant and got some work done years ago. If the house is damp and needs work now, that should be considered.

This is compounded by the fact that fuel costs have risen due to the increase in carbon tax, which is penalizing people who have no alternative. There is also a waiting list of 7,300, which equates to about two and a half years of a waiting list, going by the current work rate. The Government announced millions in the budget towards retrofitting and that is welcome, but it is no good if the work is not being done on the ground. Can this be addressed so that work is done as a matter of urgency and that second applications are considered?

This is really a matter for the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who administers that scheme through the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI. As is always the case with a grant scheme, there is a budget limit. There is no grant scheme that I am aware of where money is not limited. There has to be a limit on the budget and, therefore, there have to be some rules.

Those rules might be around a needs test or means test, or they might state that somebody who has already received a grant should not be given priority over somebody who has not yet received one. We need to be realistic about what is possible in that regard. I will take it up with the Minister.

I want to ask about the three weeks' additional parental benefit announced in budget 2021. The Tánaiste will know Sinn Féin brought forward a motion to increase maternity leave by 12 weeks in recognition of the impact of Covid-19 on parents, particularly those with newborns. The Government's solution was this increased leave. Any leave is welcome but there is little detail about when parents can actually take it. I understand that legislation is required. Can it be brought forward this year, given the difficulties faced by parents in accessing childcare and needing to return to work? Can the relevant Department publish information in the meantime to allow parents to plan for what this three weeks' additional leave means.

Legislation is required and I know the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, is progressing that as quickly as he can. My Department will process the payment as quickly as possible. It is important to say that the more than 6,000 officials in the Department of Social Protection are working flat out. They have processed something in the region of 20 million payments since last March. It has been a huge undertaking and we have had to adapt a number of the IT systems. We are currently adapting the system to pay the Christmas bonus so there is a considerable amount of work going on. When the legislation is passed, we will work on it as quickly as we can.

My question is simple and straightforward. As the Tánaiste is aware, the Debenhams workers have been protesting for 211 days because of their unfair treatment by Debenhams Ireland and KPMG, and a lack of action by this Government. Those workers are only looking for a fair and just redundancy. We are now in the middle of a second lockdown but those workers are still on picket lines in the rain and freezing cold. Is the removal of the stock from the store by KPMG considered an essential service? Can it take place during a level 5 lockdown?

It is a good question and I am afraid I do not know the answer. I will have to check that out for the Deputy. As has been reported, efforts were made last week to resolve this dispute. The Workplace Relations Commission, which is an office of my Department, hosted talks involving the trade union, Mandate, and the liquidator, KPMG. Unfortunately, those talks did not come to a successful conclusion but we will continue to try to broker an outcome or compromise, if we can. We all know the fundamental problem is that Debenhams Ireland is gone, went bust, and has many more debts and liabilities than it has assets. For that reason, the money is not going to be there to give everyone what they deserve or should get. That also includes the taxpayer.

Will the Tánaiste get back to me about that?

He probably will.

I have twice raised the matter of scoliosis patients on Questions on Promised Legislation, and the case of 11-year-old Sophie Redmond. How far is the Government going to let Sophie and other scoliosis patients suffer, physically and mentally, before they have the urgent, time-sensitive surgeries they require?

I am very sorry to hear that the Deputy's constituent is waiting on that operation. A considerable amount of effort has gone in to reducing waiting times for scoliosis operations in the past couple of years. Extra staff have been hired and a new theatre in Crumlin has been provided. Lots of things are happening. I do not have the details of the individual case to which the Deputy referred, but if he wants to pass them on to me, I will make sure it gets looked into.

As the Tánaiste and the Minister are aware, there are still hundreds of Aer Lingus workers who are seeking the retrospective entitlement to short-time work under the period the company was in receipt of the temporary wage subsidy scheme. It is now November, the eighth month of the crisis. The delay or denial of this entitlement to workers cannot go on and despite seemingly positive responses from the Minister on this, many workers are still unable to claim this entitlement. This entitlement cannot be allowed to time out.

We have had a good deal of engagement with Aer Lingus on this issue. There is ongoing work and engagement but I will obviously follow up on the matter again with my officials.

I will ask about FreeStyle Libre. There are 20,000 people in Ireland living with type 1 diabetes. They have been calling on the Department of Health and HSE for years now to reimburse people who wish to use a FreeStyle Libre device to best manage their condition. The device consists of small, round sensor that is worn on the back of the upper arm. A handheld reader or application on a smart phone can be used to scan the small sensor. This will provide the individual with an immediate reading of their glucose levels. It takes less than one second to do and there is no need to draw blood. It is faster and far more practical. This device has been described as a life-changer by those who use it. The starter kits cost €170 and the sensor costs €120 per month. It does not cost any more than the finger-prick kits that the HSE already covers. At the moment, only people under 21 with type 1 diabetes can get these costs covered by the HSE.

Ireland is the only country in the world that limits those who can access this life-changing device based on age. I ask the Government and HSE to review that.

I am familiar with these devices and they really are extraordinary. They are changing and will change the way we manage diabetes. The idea is that somebody can wear a sensor that can monitor his or her blood sugar without strips, pin pricks and all the things we have been used to for decades. I am glad that it is available for people under the age of 21. I do not know why it is not available to people over 21. Perhaps there is a reason for that. The Deputy is suggesting it is not a financial reason because the cost is much the same. It is something that I hope can be done but I do not know the reasoning behind it. I appreciate the Deputy's interest in the matter and the fact that he has raised it. I will take the matter up with the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly.

I raise the issue of the Dean Maxwell nursing home in Roscrea. This facility is facing closure which will result in the loss of the long-stay beds it provides. Over the past few years, there has been much posturing from Deputies and the HSE which has led to confusion and anger in Roscrea. I am calling on the Minister to clarify the long-term plans for the staff and patients at the nursing home. This is a major issue for people and they claim that there seems to be no plan for the future of the patients of the home. Indeed, two members of the present Government parties, while visiting the home last year, described it as a lovely caring environment where the residents are surrounded by family who can visit them with ease because the facility is in their time. Those were the comments of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath.

Roscrea urgently needs a plan which meets the needs of the older people in the town. The Dean Maxwell nursing home is close to the hearts of people in Roscrea and must be retained, according to Deputy Jackie Cahill. At the time, those two Deputies claimed that we must get the HSE to change its policy and that they had to be in government to achieve that. Now is the time and the public are watching. I call on the Minister to make a statement and contact the management and staff immediately to clarify where they stand and what the future holds.

I am afraid that I do not have any information to hand on that matter. I will ask the Minister of State with responsibility for mental health and older people, Deputy Butler, to contact the Deputy.

Lough Guitane in Muckross, Killarney is the source of a third of the water supply in Kerry. The pipe that is delivering this water to Killarney, Tralee and Listowel, and supplying the hospital and other households, is crumbling. It has broken several times in Farranfore village which is on the national primary route, the N22. It has also broken several times in Killarney, disrupting the town. This pipe needs urgently to be replaced. That needs to be prioritised.

I know, as does everyone else, that Irish Water does not have the funding. At least the link from the Killarney side of Farranfore to the railway must be replaced to stop the disruption of traffic on our national primary route. I ask the Tánaiste to please ensure that Irish Water is provided with funds to replace this important infrastructure.

The budget provides for an increase in funding for Irish Water next year.

It is to be hoped that will allow some projects to be progressed. I cannot speak about that individual project because I do not know enough about it. I will certainly check it out.

I am aware that there is much conversation about broadband, which makes me think that there is a serious problem. Included on page 61 of the programme for Government is a commitment to invest in infrastructure, including broadband, to support the development of rural towns and villages. Recently I spoke to a blind man who uses Alexa to set timers while he is cooking, but the Wi-Fi often drops, making this more difficult, as the Tánaiste will understand.

I also spoke recently to a lady in Ferns Bridge in Monasterevin. I have many areas in my constituency where this is an issue. It is not just Ferns Bridge in Monasterevin. This lady is working at home since March and we are asking these people to work at home currently due to a crisis. Her broadband connection is very unreliable and none of the commercial operators provide broadband services in her area. Can we get a commitment that there will be a major focus on the provision of reliable broadband into these areas?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. That is happening. We have signed the national broadband contract and work is under way. Unfortunately, it is going to take a couple of years but we will connect every home, farm and business in Ireland to high-speed broadband, and in the vast majority of cases we will be bringing fibre to the premises, which is a huge achievement and a big investment. It was one that was not supported by Sinn Féin. I appreciate that was before Deputy Ryan became a Deputy. Nonetheless, it is going to be delivered.

I raise the issue of the dental treatment services scheme. We have heard from the Irish Dental Association this week that 260 dentists, that is, private practitioners, have disengaged from the service where people with medical cards can get dental care. It seems that it is now the case that 200,000 medical card holders will have difficulties or will not be able to receive timely care. My fear is that this will put additional pressure on HSE own services. We need short-term solution as quickly as possible. I have also had people speak to me who operate in a residential care setting which deals with people with disabilities who are also impacted by this. We need a short-term solution and a wider solution for dental care across the board.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. This is a matter on which I do not have a note in front of me but I am aware that it is a matter that the Minister for Health is aware of and I will ask him revert to the Deputy on it.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle. The Tánaiste will probably know that the Central Bank reported this week on motor insurance. It gives us a welcome transparency on this sector. For standard injury cases, it shows that the cost of litigation is ten times the cost of going through the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, PIAB, yet we see litigation on the increase and the PIAB losing a share of those injury cases. It also shows that even though three quarters of the cases over €40,000 are going for litigation, litigation actually does not deliver for the claimant any more than going through the PIAB. A big amount of money is going into the legal pot. Are there are ways that we can drive up the numbers going through the PIAB which will bring down premiums and give a better deal to people who make claims?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and, as he may know, I am head of the ministerial committee on insurance that is trying to deal with some of these issues. The report from the Central Bank that came out this week is very welcome and is helping to give us more transparency about the pricing of insurance. It is a matter of concern that the cost of claims has not gone up as much as premiums. Claims have gone up but premiums have gone up by more.

There is also the issue that the Deputy has identified where more and more people are not settling at the PIAB but are going to court, which is resulting in higher legal costs but not higher awards. The Minister of State, Deputy Troy, who is in my Department, has responsibility for the PIAB, and as part of our reform programme, we are considering mechanisms to strengthen the PIAB and make it the place where more people settle their claims.

That concludes Questions on Promised Legislation. Five Deputies have not been reached today.

Sitting suspended at 1.05 p.m. and resumed at 1.25 p.m.