Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Safe Ireland has published new data on first-time contacts with domestic violence services for the first six months of this pandemic and the study's findings are very alarming. Three and a half thousand women and just under 600 children sought support and safety from abuse and coercive control for the first time. Helpline calls to services also increased by 25% between March and August, with nearly 34,000 calls answered across the State. Between March and June, more than 1,343 requests for refuge went unmet because the services were full. In advance of the current level 5 restrictions, the Taoiseach reassured me that additional supports and resources for domestic abuse services would be provided. He told me clearly that money would not be an issue. I subsequently forwarded to him a briefing provided by Safe Ireland. Will he now commit to providing that additional funding and those resources to ensure that victims and their children are supported and kept safe?

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. In advance of moving to level 5, we discussed the issue of domestic violence and the fact that, during the first lockdown, it was reported that there had been a significant increase in reports of domestic violence. Funding is not an issue, and should not be. Significant resources have been made available but I will speak to the Minister again and get an assessment of the report and the need to respond regarding any requirements that have been asked for and are needed.

I am quite conscious of what the Ceann Comhairle said earlier regarding the Chief Justice and Mr. Justice Woulfe but this is an issue for all of us, in government and in opposition. It is not an Opposition-versus-Government issue. I welcome the Taoiseach's decision to meet party and group leaders but, having read the letters, I am going to make a request of him in advance of the meeting. It is quite obvious that there is other correspondence between the Chief Justice and Mr. Justice Woulfe and that we have only partial publication of correspondence. In fact, Mr. Justice Woulfe says the publication of all correspondence cannot be good for "either of us or for the Court or the public interest". In fairness, the Chief Justice states, "Unfortunately, further serious issues now arise out of both aspects of the transcripts of your interview with Ms. Justice Denham and elements of the correspondence between us." We have, therefore, only partial correspondence. Through the Attorney General, can the Taoiseach request that the other correspondence be published? Second, with regard to the redactions of elements of Ms Justice Denham's report, which some would assume refer to politicians, can the politicians referred to be notified? These are my requests of the Taoiseach.

First, the matters that the Deputy refers to are matters to be addressed within the judicial arm.

I asked about a request through the Attorney General.

I know but maybe the wise thing is to meet first and see collectively how we believe we should proceed rather than doing it in a piecemeal way. The facts are that the Attorney General advises the Government and that the Oireachtas has its own legal advice. It would require its own legal advice if it wanted to engage on the issue. I will reflect on what the Deputy has asked, however. I acknowledge what he is saying.

I want to ask specifically about social housing. The programme for Government commits to ensuring that public procurement of social housing is cost-effective and that there are strong value-for-money protections in that regard. Given the report published last week by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage showing that direct build by local authorities is much more cost-effective than turnkey acquisitions or turnkey purchases from the private sector, will the Taoiseach commit now to ending the costly use of turnkey acquisitions and instead put all our resources into direct build for social housing?

As the Deputy knows, in the budget we allocated unprecedented resources for housebuilding, in particular public housing. Our target is 10,000 units per annum for the next five years. These will be direct builds.

There will always be an element of acquisition but we want to keep that to a minimum. I take the Deputy's point; I have no issue with the points that it is far more cost-effective to build directly on the social housing front and that local authorities should become far more proactive on that front. The resources are now being made available at an unprecedented level to get on with the job. Likewise, resources will be provided in terms of affordable housing. There are also specific initiatives around homelessness. I do not disagree with the broad thrust of what the Deputy said.

Sixth-year students in our secondary schools have lost a lot of teaching time. The Minister for Education has made some changes to leaving certificate 2021 to try to take account of this.

Coming off the back of the mid-term break, it is fair to say that there is a growing feeling among students that the Minister's changes do not go far enough. An Instagram poll that I recently organised saw nearly 3,000 students participate, with more than 90% saying that the changes needed to go further and more concessions needed to be made. They said that the changes to be considered should include the cancellation of the leaving certificate. That is the feedback we received. Does the Government intend to listen to these students? If so, what changes to the leaving certificate is the Government considering making?

What the Government has said is a very clear commitment and intention to hold the leaving certificate next year. We are giving that certainty to the current cohort of students who are now in sixth year, who had a difficult year last year in fifth year - I am sorry, as I meant this year, but it was last year's academic year - because of Covid-19, the degree of disruption that caused and the fact that schools were closed for quite some time. Account will be taken of that in terms of how the examinations are designed and in terms of the curriculum and the options and the choices. They will be designed in such a way as to take on board the challenges that the students have because they would have missed a significant amount of time last year, particularly in respect of subjects like history and languages. Therefore, the idea would be to give a far greater degree of choice to students who will be sitting the exam next year. I have no doubt that the Minister for Education and, indeed, the examinations board and the Department are giving this ongoing attention. I would surmise-----

Go raibh maith agat, but I am trying to be fair to everyone.

I wish to ask about driving tests. There are 92,576 people waiting for driver tests. The current waiting period is 25 to 30 weeks. Prior to Covid, it was 19 weeks. This is not fair on people, be they young or older. I understand from the Minister that 16 retired testers are being rehired. While that is welcome, we need radical and seismic action. I believe it was the former Minister, Mr. Sylvester Barrett, who gave out licences in 1979 because of the delays. People cannot go to work, recreational activities or college. It is a major impediment in rural Ireland in particular. Under the RSA, people must take 12 lessons. If they are competent lessons, then they should give people the authority to say that they are now proficient at driving. Something must be done for this cohort of people.

I take the Deputy's point and I will pursue the matter with the Minister again to see if we can expedite it.

Unfortunately, I believe that the Taoiseach has to leave.

No, I am okay.

There are a number of Deputies offering. With their co-operation, I will get through them as quickly as possible. I call Deputy Danny Healy-Rae. I beg the House's pardon, but I will actually call Deputy Fitzpatrick. He was the last in this group.

I will just rise to-----

The Deputy will be next after Deputy Fitzpatrick.

Thank you very much, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I would say that----

Deputy Fitzpatrick is first. Deputy Danny Healy-Rae will be next.

As we speak, the Northern Ireland Assembly is discussing restrictions in Northern Ireland, which are to be reviewed on Friday. I come from a Border county. We in Louth, Meath and Monaghan have busted our backsides getting the coronavirus rate down. Our number of deaths has dropped, as has our number of positive cases. The North's numbers have doubled. Is the Government negotiating with the Northern Ireland Assembly? Everyone is talking about a united Ireland, but we seem to be on two different planets at the moment. We in the Border area are afraid for our lives. Everything is open in the North, including shops on main streets. We seem to be on a completely different island, but we are on the island of Ireland. If the Northern Ireland Assembly does not agree to work with us, it will be time to get the Army out patrolling the Border. The situation there has grown that serious. Is the Northern Assembly speaking to us? I hope that it will show common sense next Friday. Look at the difference made to this country since we went to level 5.

I thank the Deputy.

We do not want another lockdown. We have had two so far.

I ask the Deputy to co-operate.

If something is not done with the North, we will have a third lockdown. Please, sort out the North.

I have kept the channels open on a consistent basis with the First Minister and deputy First Minister. The Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, is in constant contact with the Minister for Health in the Northern Ireland Executive, Mr. Robin Swann.

The respective Chief Medical Officers are engaging. Our views are well known. I have made the point that harmony in terms of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland and the Republic would make sense. England has entered into a significant upping of the levels of restriction, and Scotland likewise. The Welsh are doing something similar. Our plan has been working effectively, from level 3 right through to level 4 in the Border counties and level 5. We are one of the best performers in Europe at the moment in terms of getting the numbers of deaths and hospitalisation down and getting the incidence rate down. It has been a great national effort from young people of all ages in the Republic. I urge people to keep it going so that we can get these numbers down to very low levels.

I raise again the issue of patients who need cataract procedures, hip and knee replacements and several other procedures. They have been advised today by the HSE that, as of 1 January, patients will not be accepted or cannot carry on with the cross-border directive. There are mutterings of a bilateral agreement with Northern Ireland but nothing has been forthcoming on this. Is the Taoiseach going to let people who have problems with their eyes and need cataracts removed go blind? Is he going to let the people who need hip and knee replacements continue suffering in pain? That is more or less what he has been insinuating in recent weeks. This is most unfair. Is the Taoiseach going to allow people to go blind after 1 January? That is the question I am asking him.

I, too, was informed this morning by the chief executive of a hospital in the North. This Saturday I have a bus going up to the North. I went on Radio Kerry this morning to discuss this important issue. I raised this with the Taoiseach in the Dáil before. To be clear, 5,500 patients have used this scheme every year for the past four years. It is not only for cataract operations; it is also for having tonsils removed and orthopaedic procedures, to name a few. If we take it that 5,500 people will be unable to travel to the North after 1 January and if we put those 5,500 on to our already overburdened waiting lists, it will cause chaos in our health service.

I am pleading with the Taoiseach today to ensure there is a bilateral agreement with the North of Ireland. We cannot have a situation whereby the only way people can get cross-border treatment is by going out of this country to some place like Spain. That will not work. The age profile of the people is such that many of them are too elderly to travel like that. I am pleading with the Taoiseach to do something for these people.

Is Deputy Griffin indicating to come in on this question?

I have been indicating for ten minutes to get in.

I have made it clear in the past that this is because Britain is leaving the European Union. This is not a scheme; it is a European directive. Europe made this facility available to all the citizens of Europe. It is a cross-border arrangement for health services which are then recompensed by their taxpayers. Since Britain is leaving the European Union, its participation in the directive falls. That is what is happening. That said, I have indicated in this House that we are negotiating a bilateral agreement. Whether there is a deal or a no-deal Brexit, we are negotiating a bilateral agreement. The UK health service and the health service in the Republic or the Department here are negotiating. The omnibus Brexit Bill has provisions for Northern Ireland on a range of issues.

To be fair, under the common travel area, and not only on the common travel issue, historically, the British-Irish relationship on access to health services has been excellent. The UK health service provides specialist treatments and has received many Irish children and people down through the years, and vice versa. We now have cardiac care in Ireland in Crumlin for children, for example. That is the spirit in which we intend to proceed.

Yesterday, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, announced €63.5 million for a range of greenway projects throughout the country for 2021. The Minister went on to pat the Government on the back by saying this was the highest single year amount ever allocated to greenways. He went on to say this showed the commitment of this Government to providing a step-change in the way in which we fund walking and cycling.

Can the Taoiseach explain why Cork South-West did not get one brown cent of the €63.5 million fund? Are we now in the same situation with this Government as we were with the previous one, whereby west Cork was overlooked for rural regeneration funds year after year? West Cork has some fabulous opportunities for greenway funding, from old railway lines to old walking routes all the way from Innishannon to the Beara Peninsula, which are starved of funds. Why is the constituency of Cork South-West is being overlooked for greenway funds in 2021?

I can tell the Deputy one thing: by the time I am finished, there will be no absence of greenways in west Cork. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is here and he agrees with me.

We have had the promise of a vaccine with 90% effectiveness. We need people to be careful and we need to maintain public health guidelines, but the European Commission is to sign a contract with Pfizer and BioNTech tomorrow. I think this is the fourth vaccine contract, and we know that a number of phase 3 vaccine trials are ongoing. Could the Taoiseach explain how the State will have access to these vaccines? Has there been any discussion on an all-Ireland response on vaccination and then ensuring we have the capacity to administer vaccines and that people will get them on the basis of need and not just on the basis of economics?

We all awoke in a brighter world this morning with hope that we may have a vaccine with a 90% effectiveness rate coming our way. In Grange Castle, in my constituency, Pfizer has done tremendous work, and the Tánaiste and I have been out there to meet them and see first-hand the work they have been doing. I would appreciate an update from the Taoiseach on how this will impact on us in Ireland, what the plans are for roll-out of the vaccine and any insights he has on this going forward.

The Government has been part of the European Commission approach in term ofs the pre-purchase of vaccines from a number of companies. Pfizer-BioNTech is one of the partnerships in respect of which a contract is being explored and it is very close to conclusion. Others are Sanofi, Janssen and Oxford-AstraZeneca. The Government today decided to establish a task force headed by Brian MacCraith, former president of Dublin City University to lead up the logistics operation that will be required for both the physical procurement of the vaccine, that is, bringing it into the country, creating distribution networks and making sure we can get it administered. A very significant logistical effort is required in respect of the vaccine. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, for example, has to be stored at -80°C. The task force is representative of people who will have key roles in ensuring we not only purchase the vaccines but are in a position to distribute them to the population.

Is the Taoiseach aware that, in March, the SouthDoc centre in Blackpool, Cork, along with a number of other SouthDoc centres, was closed due to the Covid-19 crisis? All the other SouthDoc centres were reopened except for the one on the north side of the city, in Blackpool. I have contacted the HSE and the operators of SouthDoc seeking a timeline for the reopening of SouthDoc in Blackpool. At the moment people have to travel to the Kinsale Road, and for people who do not have a car, it is €20 to get a taxi over and another €20 back. This is a vital service for the people of the north side of Cork city and for Cork North-Central as a whole. Can I get an answer today? Will Blackpool's SouthDoc centre be open by Christmas because it is desperately needed for the north side?

I will answer because the Taoiseach, I think, has an important phone call to take. It is no offence to the Deputy or the serious questions he asks about the people in Blackpool on the north side of Cork. I do not have a specific answer as to what happened with the closure but I commit to getting an answer from the HSE and making sure it is provided to the Deputy as quickly as possible.

He is right; it is some distance from Blackpool over to the Kinsale Road. We want to make sure facilities are available in every location.

There seems to be a level of confusion about the Department of Education's interpretation of HSE guidelines with regard to special needs assistants, SNAs, and face coverings insofar as a school does not have to provide medical grade face masks for SNAs outside of intimate care settings. The Minister will agree that our special needs assistants are doing sterling work. They are on the front line and need adequate protection. Will the Minister ensure the Minister for Health engages with the Minister for Education and the Fórsa Trade Union to ensure the adequate protections are provided in classrooms for special needs assistants as they do their best to keep our schools open?

I join the Deputy in commending the support that is given to children with special needs in our education system, of which I have personal experience. It is critical that special needs assistants get all the protection and supports they need. I will ask the Minister for Health directly, and also the Minister for Education, to follow up and make sure the necessary material is available. There is an ongoing process here. The Government is committed to the school system and we will do everything we can to keep it safe and keep our schools open at this time.

I am seeking an update on the assisted human reproduction Bill. One element in particular, namely, the general scheme which dealt with posthumous reproduction, was introduced and went through pre-legislative scrutiny when the Minister, Deputy Harris, was Minister for Health. That has created an expectation among people who have to go through an unexpected and tragic time and must contend with that. In the absence of any legislation, clinics and people who use clinics must operate without any legislative guide. When will the Bill come forward? In the interim, will the Government engage with the clinics, through the Minister for Health, to ensure that any actions that are deemed to be irreversible to gametes or embryos do not take place? I know it is sensitive subject and I thank the Minister very much for any response he might have.

I am informed the Bill has gone through a lengthy process of pre-legislative scrutiny. Further work is progressing on it and I expect it will proceed into the Dáil in due course. It is, however, a complex issue which explains why such extensive pre-legislative scrutiny has been done on it.

I raise the issue of paramedics. Last year, paramedics went on strike and earlier this year, we all sat in the Dáil clapping them. We still refuse to let them be represented by the union of their choice, namely, the Psychiatric Nurses Association, PNA. I ask the Minister and the Government to intervene with the HSE to allow them to be represented in talks by the PNA.

Again, I will have to refer the matter to the line Minister. I do not have details on where those negotiations are taking place. We are engaging on an ongoing basis with the trade union movement. As recently as last week, we attended a meeting of the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, at which the partnership approach involving the Government working with both employers and unions was discussed. That is the correct approach. We must be careful that we do not intervene if particular issues are being solved through our labour dispute resolution processes. I will attempt to get a direct answer for the Deputy on where those talks are at this time.

I welcome the funding for regional airports announced today, which is very important for these airports. Will the Minister update the House on when he expects the Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, national, secondary and primary road funding for 2021 to be announced? It is usually announced around this time of year.

There will be a series of developments in this area. As the Deputy will be aware, we are seeking to make a significant switch from road spending to public transport funding. We set out the broad outline of the budgets during budget time, which sees a major positioning of new investments for projects such as the greenway investment announced yesterday. Today in County Waterford, we announced the development of a significant sustainable transport infrastructure which will lead to transport-led development.

There is a series of other initiatives which will look at investment using the EU recovery fund. Investment will not just be by way of the budget. It is on the EU recovery fund that the first focus will be in terms of what additional funding we can get, particularly for balanced regional development outside Dublin, which will go towards the sorts of announcements we made in Waterford earlier today and in respect of the greenways yesterday. I hope this sort of funding will make a real difference in Kerry and every other county. My focus, first and foremost, is on getting those sustainable transport projects agreed.