Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Telecommunications Services

I am thankful for the opportunity to raise this matter. I do not think there is a Deputy, Senator or councillor who does not know what prompted me to table it for debate. I do not know of a measure to gauge the frustration and anger that exist but I suggest that both are off the scale. The number of people who have contacted public representatives, providers, particularly Eir, and the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, is unprecedented. I appreciate the challenges of Covid-19 but the customer service and the type of response being provided to people are completely inexcusable.

The level of frustration expressed by members of the transport and communications committee earlier on when we had the CEO from Eir before us reflected the wider frustration and anger among the population and the users of those services in particular. The meeting could have gone on all day such was the level of engagement and the number of concerns that people had to raise. As I said, I appreciate that Covid is a particular challenge but I do not accept that as an excuse from Eir or any other provider because some of these issues have been around since long before Covid-19. Eir came before the committee today and apologised for the service and promised a better future, but we have been listening to those promises for a long time and I, for one, am not confident that they will be realised. Consequently, people are caught in a catch-22 situation; they feel that they have nowhere to turn and that they are not getting a response. Many people will have seen the RTÉ "Prime Time" programme last night. It was proof positive that some of the claims being made by these companies are not actually being realised in practical terms. The average waiting times are one such example. I would be interested to hear what the median is because very many people are waiting far in excess of ten minutes and often up to 40 minutes. I have seen Facebook and other social media posts about people waiting on the line for in excess of two hours. At the root of this is a lack of accountability, an impotence, if you like, on behalf of the regulator and it is this House that legislates for the regulator. We should not have privatised these industries; that is part of the problem here and we are paying the price for it. Huge damage has been done to the public's confidence in this sector and a lot of work must be done to address it.

I am glad the Minister is here. I want to know what he has done to engage with the sector to address this issue and to improve it in the time ahead.

I thank Deputy O'Rourke for raising this issue, which was also raised by the Ceann Comhairle on Question Time in the House two weeks ago.

The electricity and gas retail markets in Ireland operate within the European Union regulatory regime wherein electricity and gas markets are commercial, liberalised and competitive. Responsibility for the regulation of those electricity and gas markets is solely a matter for the Commission for Regulation of Utilities. However, I understand the Deputy is referring directly to the recent published coverage of the telecommunications customer service issues.

It is important to note that the provision of the telecommunications services occurs within a fully liberalised market regulated by the independent market regulator, ComReg. The latter is responsible for the regulation of the electronic communications sector in accordance with national and EU legislation. As part of its role, ComReg implements the telecommunications regulatory framework which requires each telecommunications service provider to establish and operate a code of practice, including requirements for complaint handling and means of contact with customers. Service providers must implement these measures, at a minimum, to assist consumers when they need to contact them with a complaint. A copy of the code of practice can be accessed online at www.comreg.ie. Any operator failing to comply with any of these requirements is a matter to be pursued by ComReg.

ComReg is aware of the unhappiness with the level of customer service currently being provided by telecommunications operators and by Eir in particular. In this regard, it has been in regular discussions with the company in an effort to address the current deficiencies in its customer care service. I understand that while Eir recently experienced a significantly higher turnover in consumer care staff, it is proactively engaging with ComReg and improvements have been made to its customer services in recent times. ComReg has published on its website a detailed note on all the actions it has taken to resolve those customer care issues. This information includes a recommendation that customers who have complaints should in the first instance contact the service provider using its customer complaints number.

Regarding Eir specifically, ComReg advises that the company has two customer complaints numbers: Eir at Home and Eir Business. Details of these are provided on the ComReg website.

ComReg understands that wait times for these complaint numbers are substantially lower and more acceptable than Eir's general customer service number. Customers whose complaint has not been sufficiently dealt with by the service provider within ten working days should contact ComReg, which will then contact the provider on the customer's behalf to resolve the complaint. I recognise that further work remains to be done and, consequently, in discussion with the Department, ComReg continues to review what additional measures could be taken to assist in protecting consumer interests. This includes consideration of what, if any, further legislative or non-legislative changes the regulator considers necessary and appropriate.

Furthermore, the Tánaiste and I recently met Eir and Vodafone to raise concerns about customer care issues. Today, Eir appeared before the Oireachtas joint committee, where the Deputy had the opportunity to discuss the matter directly with management of the company. I am certain the telecommunications customer care issues will be resolved in the short term. This is a critical issue. As the Deputy said, widespread complaints have been raised in the House and all of us take it particularly seriously. Some of the ways it has been raised here, including in comments by the Ceann Comhairle, have helped bring the matter to the attention of the wider public and I hope this is one way that will make sure things do change.

It is important to put on the record that the scale of the problem has not been properly reflected in the figures that have been made public. Last night, for example, RTÉ reflected on the number of complaints that ComReg dealt with, which was 1,062 over a three-month period. It also had a number of other queries. In fact, only a fraction of the people who have problems and issues with these providers ever go to ComReg. Earlier today, Eir told us it deals with the massive number of 230,000 calls a month. We know the frustration of a significant percentage of these people is related to the decrease in the number of call centre staff and the delay in getting a response. We should be frank regarding the scale of the problem. It is not reflected in the ComReg figures, with the greatest of respect to the commission. The Minister is correct that we should say loud and clear from here with regard to Eir that people should be encouraged to use the 1800 number instead of the 1901 number because this can make a difference.

With regard to the his responsibility and the role of ComReg to enforce the code of practice, at present the code of practice is not a deterrent. It is essentially a voluntary scheme and the slap on the wrist amounts to nothing, perhaps a €5,000 fine for a company such as Eir that makes profits of €222 million. ComReg wants and needs more power. It is looking for it and the Government has committed to this in the programme for Government. When will we see the legislation?

The Deputy is correct that the numbers are only a small reflection of the problems that exist. However, the numbers do help to give some indicative sense of where the problem is, and in this instance the volume of complaints about problems with Eir's fixed line service was multiples of the next nearest company, Vodafone, which was, in turn, a multiple of the next nearest company. It also shows clearly that the problem was with fixed line services rather than mobile. It also reflects that not only was Covid a partial cause of some of the difficulties that arose but also a real cause of concern for householders because at this time more than any other, people need their fixed broadband service. The scale of the problem is beyond compare, as the Deputy said, and cannot be underestimated.

When it comes to further remedies or further actions, the Department, and I as Minister, keep in regular contact with ComReg, while recognising it is an independent regulator. To work best it has to have independence to be able to sanction and make calls on investment or other criteria. If there are proposals from ComReg regarding using its powers to help implement the customer codes, the Government will be immediately forthcoming. This is not a constraint that will limit our ability to make sure customer care improves. We will absolutely work in collaboration with ComReg to make sure it has all of the power it needs to manage the issue.

Wait times for calls and the inability to get through to someone is the most frustrating aspect, and then when people finally do get through they are so exasperated that it is not an easy conversation. The wait times I hear reported from the company have improved in recent weeks. The worst of this problem emerged in late summer and early autumn in terms of the inability of Eir to hold onto the staff it needed and the increase in demand from customers who, because of Covid, had genuine complaints and reason to complain. This variety of circumstances has somewhat been addressed in terms of, I understand, shorter and improved response times but if there is any call from ComReg for further powers for it to be able to further police this, the Government will respond straight away.

National Broadband Plan

I am raising this issue because so many constituents are having significant trouble accessing broadband throughout mid-Cork. They need broadband to be able to work from home, for college, to run their businesses and for social use. A great number of people from Ballingeary, to Ballinora to Ballyhea and everywhere in between are in the intervention area and waiting for services. While there is a patchwork of wireless operators, including Rapid and Imagine, they are only able to cover some of the area and many people are left without options.

The national broadband plan, NBP, has been up and running for a year at this stage and it will take another four years at least to cover much of the area. It is only covering one area in each county as it stands. In a county the size of Cork, which covers one eighth of the island, this is only a drop in the ocean. Macroom's council area is the size of County Leitrim and there are nine similar areas in Cork. The plan is being rolled out in an uneven way with only one area in each county. Larger counties such as Cork, Mayo and Galway are losing out. It is very frustrating for people who need to be able to access broadband, which should be made available more evenly. It is very frustrating for people when the fibre is so near their home but they do not have access, especially if they do not have a wireless option nearby.

People have also been raising with me how they cannot get a handle on a timeline on the plan. They are left very much in the dark waiting for broadband. The NBP does not seem to be taking on what appear to be low hanging fruit, for example, where commercial fibre is passing homes. People are not getting the opportunity to make a connection to it. From Derrynacaheragh to Coppeen to Castletown and Kilmichael, vast areas do not have the option available to them and are very much dependent on getting the NBP moving quickly.

It is not only an issue for rural areas. On the edge of the city boundary, in Ovens and Ballinora, which overlook the global cloud computing company, Dell EMC, many people are struggling to access broadband services. Even the blue commercial zone there are serious issues, for example in Heathfield, Ballincollig, where residents have been in for almost 16 months and Eir is still not rolling out fibre connections to them. It does not make sense. We would have expected that within the blue commercial zone these would have been the areas where Eir would have quickly had the service rolled out.

We will find every kind of excuse, from Eircode postcodes not being available to not being able to get on site and so on. This is despite the fact residents in Heathfield have had their Eircode postcodes since February last. Ducts have been installed as part of the construction, the builders have moved to phase 3 and still the fibre has not been laid when people have been living there for 16 months.

Is there some way the Minister can raise this with Eir and ComReg to see if they can quickly roll out broadband in those blue areas, as well as in the intervention area? It is very frustrating for people who have to sit so close to the fibre and not have an option. There are also many people in rural areas who really have no option of getting broadband and who are waiting for the national broadband plan.

The national broadband plan contract was signed with National Broadband Ireland, NBI, in November last to roll out a high-speed and future-proofed broadband network within the intervention area, which covers 1.1 million people living and working in over 544,000 premises, including almost 100,000 businesses and farms, along with 695 schools. The national broadband plan will ensure that citizens throughout the entire country have access to high-speed broadband services and that nobody is left without this vital service. The national broadband plan network will offer users a high-speed broadband service with a minimum download speed of 500 Mbps from the outset. I should point out that this represents an increase from the original 150 Mbps committed to under the contract. The current deployment team forecasts premises passed in all counties within the first two years, and over 90% of premises having access to high-speed broadband within the next four years.

The high-speed broadband map, to which the Deputy referred, is available at broadband.gov.ie and it shows the area in Cork which will be included in the national broadband plan State-led intervention, as well as areas targeted by commercial operators. There are 273,548 premises in Cork, of which 79,424 premises will be covered by high-speed broadband through the State-led intervention. A further 194,124 premises are in areas where commercial providers are either currently delivering or have plans to deliver high-speed broadband services. Government investment in County Cork under the national broadband plan will be of the order of €314 million.

As of 16 November, over 131,000 premises across all counties in the country have been surveyed by NBI. Of this figure, over 16,000 premises have been surveyed to date in County Cork, including in the areas of Carrigaline and Midleton. NBI crews have started initial works with a build in around 4,000 premises in the Carrigaline area, including Fountainstown, Ballinhassig, Monkstown and Upper Rochestown. The first fibre-to-the-home connections are expected next month in Carrigaline, and they will be subject to technical testing and validation prior to wider release of the area. I am advised that, from the end of January, retailers will be able to resell the service and householders in these areas will be able to order high-speed broadband provided via the NBI network. Further details are available on specific areas within Cork on the NBI website, which provides a facility for any premises within the intervention area to register an interest in being provided with deployment updates through that website.

Broadband connection points, BCPs, are also a key element of the national broadband plan, providing high-speed broadband in every county in advance of the roll-out of the fibre to the home network. It is anticipated that some 275 sites in rural areas will be installed with broadband in this way by the end of the year, including 75 schools. As of Friday, 13 November, 147 sites and 43 schools have had those connections installed. The high-speed broadband service will be switched on in these locations through service provider contracts managed by the Department of Rural and Community Development for publicly available sites, and by the Department of Education for schools. These national broadband BCPs are located across County Cork, where the public will be able to benefit from the services at Ballindangan community centre, Aghabullogue community centre, Castletownkenneigh community centre, Lisavaird community centre, Whitechurch community centre and the TO Park in Labbamologga. Further infrastructure is being installed by NBI at Bear Island heritage centre, Laharn heritage centre and Ballydaly community hall, and it is anticipated that these sites will be connected in the coming weeks. Further details are available on the NBI website. Clogagh and Ballycroneen national schools will also connected for educational access as part of that initiative. My Department continues to work with the Department of Education and the other schools in the intervention area in Cork.

While substantial progress has been made, the Covid pandemic has had an impact on delivery of the network and the extent of that impact is currently being assessed. We have committed to putting in place measures to mitigate the impact as far as possible.

A large number of houses are being surveyed across the country, including a pocket to the south of Cork city. I again draw the Minister's attention to the fact that, despite the size of Cork, there is nowhere within 40 or 50 miles of that where the service is being delivered. It is similar in north-west, west and east Cork, which makes up one eighth of the country. The national broadband plan is being rolled out but areas such as Lissarda, near Kilmurray, Castletown, Coppeen and Togher have been left without service. Those responsible for the national broadband plan need to get a handle on rolling out into those rural areas much faster and serving communities.

I have outlined to the Minister the situation in regard to the blue zone, where it was expected that broadband would already have been rolled out in commercial areas. I have outlined to the Minister the very slow pace. Heathfield is in phase 3 of construction, people have been living there for 16 months at this stage and Eircode postcodes have been available since the beginning of this year, yet, despite the ducting being available, Eir has not run fibre through it. Eir must be answerable somewhere because when it is raised with ComReg, it is always the case that Eir has provided some sop of an answer about 3 Mbps, which will probably only deliver 1 Mbps. It is not working. Eir needs to be answerable and it needs to roll out the fibre.

Nearby, in Killumney village, again in a blue zone, many people would have expected to have the nearby fibre connected, yet their properties appear as yellow dots on the national broadband plan, which means their connection has been delayed further. People in the blue zone would reasonably expect to have had services rolled out before now. I ask that the national broadband plan would be rolled out more quickly and also that the Minister would raise the issue of the blue zone with ComReg and with Eir to get those areas served more quickly.

I thank the Deputy. In response to the earlier question from Deputy O'Rourke, I said we had met both Eir and Vodafone to discuss this issue of the customer complaints service. I used that opportunity to also ask about the roll-out of broadband in other areas. There are a number of points. First, the key next stage in the development of rural broadband is the involvement of Eir and the ESB in taking these surveys, given 130,000 houses have been surveyed already, and turning it into a plan, pole by pole, for how we get fixed broadband to the house. The company committed that it would give it full urgency and do everything to match what exists in government and in NBI, which is a desire to accelerate the roll-out programme, particularly because of the acceleration in the demand for broadband services due to Covid. That is possible, and it requires Eir to have a critical role.

Second, the company said it has now delivered on the 300,000 or so houses that it had committed to providing with high-speed broadband in rural Ireland, on time and ahead of schedule, with a huge pick-up in demand. With Cork accounting for one eighth of the country, that would equate to some 35,000 houses in the Cork area that will have got broadband through that service, although I will have to check that figure with the company.

Third, and critically, SIRO, which is a joint venture involving Vodafone and the ESB, has also been very successful in rolling out broadband, more in towns than in rural areas because that is where it has targeted. The Deputy is correct that it is important we get the national broadband plan right. However, it is also important that, in other areas of rural Ireland which are not in the intervention area, in the towns and, I have to say, in the urban areas as well, that we get the same level of investment so every single house in this country has access to the high-speed fast broadband that we need. I am confident in the policy we have, given that there is a variety of different companies which are not competing against each other.

Where that does not exist we intervene in the market to cover the house that would not have otherwise been covered. We will cover every single house in this country and we will do it quicker than the original seven years set out in the national broadband plan. It is essential that we advance that quicker in Cork and everywhere else.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for affording me the opportunity to raise this important issue. It relates to a friend of a constituent who, along with the partner and family, borrowed money during the boom times. It was not wise borrowing. The Ceann Comhairle or I would not have approved or authorised it but many things happened during the boom that we would not have authorised. In any event, the family suffered a number of bereavements, which substantially altered the ability to repay and serious issues were arising. A partial solution was found in 2018 where part of the properties were sold to liquidate some of the debt and, as the Ceann Comhairle and I know, the worst possible solution is a partial solution; it has to be all or nothing. We now have a situation whereby the current lender proposes to secure the rest of the property and make the person homeless.

I intervened some weeks ago explaining the reason I wanted a delay in the process until some dialogue could be entered into and an arrangement agreed within the capabilities of the borrower to meet and for the bank to accept. Very little followed from that until, in the past week or so, the remaining borrower received notice to the effect that it looked as if the intention was to seek liquidation or receivership. I corresponded once again on 18 November to the effect that I was anxious to obtain an urgent response in order to engage with some entity which could speak with authority. I did not receive a reply until I sent a further letter and email in the past 24 hours to state that I proposed to raise the case in the House at the earliest opportunity, that I had already raised it in the finance committee and had invoked the Central Bank to respond and get involved in dealing with that kind of situation in a way that gives some recognition to the plight of the borrower when she is doing her best or cannot do any better than she is doing. To be fair, I then received a response from the solicitor acting for the companies who said there was no longer any need to raise it in the House because they recognised there was a possibility of some discussion taking place but that they would not defer further action because they only received my letter on the day after they had authorised the legal action. That is immaterial because the client can always instruct her legal representatives to go ahead or stop as the case may be.

I am particularly grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue in the House. I believe that it is possible to make a meaningful contribution provided that the lending institution involved is prepared to recognise that it has a role to play also and that there are human issues in this type of case that should be recognised. I hope that as and from today we will have a situation whereby I can enter into dialogue on behalf of the borrower, which hopefully will be of benefit to that borrower.

I thank Deputy Durkan for raising the matter. In the first instance I wish to express my sincere condolences to the borrower on her recent bereavements. In this case I assume the Deputy is referring to a borrower whose mortgage is held by the entity to which he referred in the details supplied. This entity in question is authorised on a transitional basis on the Central Bank's register of credit servicing firms. This provides for entities to be authorised until the Central Bank has granted or refused their authorisation as long as they were carrying on the activity of a credit servicing firm before the requirement to be authorised. While under consideration for full authorisation, the loan owners nevertheless still have to comply with a suite of consumer protection and other regulatory requirements, including the Central Bank's statutory codes, and therefore the consumer protections which applied when the loan was initially made continue to apply fully following the purchase of a loan by the new creditor, which I will detail now.

The code of conduct on mortgage arrears, the CCMA, in particular provides a strong consumer protection framework for borrowers who are in arrears or pre-arrears on a mortgage loan secured on a primary residence. The overriding objective of the CCMA is to ensure the fair and transparent treatment of consumers in mortgage arrears or pre-arrears and that due regard is had to the fact that each case of mortgage arrears is unique and needs to be considered on its own merits.

The CCMA recognises that it is in the interests of borrowers and regulated firms to address financial difficulties as speedily, effectively and sympathetically as circumstances allow. It also sets out the mortgage arrears resolution process, MARP, which is a four-step process that regulated entities must follow. The key step in this MARP is the resolution of a particular mortgage difficulty. In this regard, the CCMA requires, in respect of a co-operating borrower, regulated entities to explore all of the options for an alternative repayment arrangement, ARA, offered by that lender. Furthermore, the regulated entity is required to document its considerations of each option examined, including the reasons the option or options offered are appropriate and sustainable in the individual circumstances of the case and also the reason options considered and not offered are not appropriate and not considered to be sustainable for the borrower's individual circumstances.

Where a regulated entity does not offer an ARA it must, among a range of requirements, set out on paper or another durable medium the reasons for that decision to the borrower, inform the borrower of the other options available to him or her, such as a voluntary sale or mortgage to rent, and inform the borrower of his or her right to appeal the decision under the CCMA to the lenders appeal board and also the right to consult a personal insolvency practitioner. In addition, following an internal CCMA appeals process, the regulated entity will also be required to inform the borrower of her right to refer the matter to the statutory Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman of Ireland.

It is also necessary for the lender to engage in real, effective and proportionate communication with the borrower. In this regard, it should be noted that provision 8 of the CCMA provides that at the borrower's request and with the borrower's written consent the lender must liaise with a third party nominated by the borrower to act on her behalf in relation to her arrears situation. That is an important provision but it is also a very clear rule, which is at the heart of the Deputy's question. The lender must liaise with a third party nominated by the borrower. For example, for borrowers relying on the help of the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS, the lender must engage with that service. However, the provision does not prevent the lender from contacting the borrower directly regarding other matters or issuing communications required under the code directly to the borrower. Furthermore, under provision 22, a lender must ensure that the level of communications is proportionate, that communications are not aggressive, intimidating or harassing and that borrowers are given sufficient time to complete required actions. I hope this will offer assistance to the Deputy in his engagement with the constituent who is experiencing mortgage difficulty.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply, which is greatly appreciated. I agree it will be of benefit in pursuing the issue once again with the current lenders. The one fault that I and many other Members in this House have raised regarding such issues is that the MARP that is available is something the lenders draw up and immediately tell the borrower and those acting on their behalf that they do not qualify and cannot get the benefit, that the borrower has a distressed loan and that the lender believes he or she does not have the ability to discharge it. That does not mean that it is impossible to resolve it. There is almost €170,000 in interest in this particular situation, which is a considerable amount of money, particularly when part of the loan is covered by a very low interest tracker mortgage. There are many issues to be discussed in regard to this case and it should be possible to bring about a satisfactory resolution.

The most important thing is that Deputies have access to the Ceann Comhairle to raise these issues and to the Central Bank via the relevant committees of the House to be assured that what is happening is in accordance with the legislation, due process and best practice. I thank the Minister of State for his reply and the Ceann Comhairle for facilitating me in raising the issue.

As I mentioned, there is a strong consumer protection framework in place to protect mortgage and other loan borrowers. Borrowers have a suite of protections and lenders have a range of responsibilities to discharge when dealing with borrowers in arrears. There are also a number of public supports available to borrowers in debt difficulty, such as MABS and the Abhaile service for mortgage debt. I encourage any borrower who is experiencing difficulty to engage with these services. If a borrower is in significant difficulty, the Deputy may also wish to note that there is also scope for a personal insolvency practitioner, PIP, to be appointed by a borrower to assist him or her in reaching a satisfactory outcome with the lender. Where a PIP is appointed, the PIP may make a proposal to the borrower's creditors, and even where that proposal is rejected by the creditors, there is the ability, if the arrangement includes a loan which is secured on a principal private residence, for it to be adopted by the courts.

As the Deputy will know, the Minister for Justice is currently bringing forward legislation to extend the circumstances in which this option is available to borrowers. Much has been done over the last years to enhance protections for borrowers and I assure the Deputy that the Minister for Finance will continue to work with the Central Bank, as regulator, to ensure that the full suite of consumer protection measures is available to borrowers and that lenders who do not meet their requirements are dealt with appropriately under the supervisory framework for regulated financial service providers.

Brexit Issues

We appreciate the Ceann Comhairle allowing this matter because it is of significant importance. The Minister of State is well aware of the cross-border directive that has been in place for a number of years and the fact that people have availed of procedures that can be carried out in the North. Has the Government put into the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2020 a provision or an arrangement to allow the cross-border directive, under which more than 5,000 people from the South have had eye-saving surgery, hip and knee operations in the North, to remain in force? If not for this directive, thousands of people, mainly from west Cork and Kerry, would have gone blind or been left in severe pain. Deputy Danny Healy-Rae and I have taken more than 2,000 people for surgery and we want to know if this will continue. We have been led on a merry dance for the past couple of months and no clear answer has been given.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this important matter. I have been taking people from Kerry and Deputy Michael Collins has been taking people from west Cork to Belfast to get their sight restored, have hips and knees replaced, have operations on shoulders and other ailments and, for youngsters, to have their tonsils removed. I took a child of eight years of age to get cataracts removed from both eyes so that he could go back to school and I took a man as old as 95. Is the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, replying?

It is the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan.

When he was in the previous Government, the Minister for Foreign Affairs promised that he would put in place legislation to allow a bilateral arrangement between the UK and the South of Ireland so that this service could continue. Will the Government put this bilateral arrangement in place? The Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, gave an assurance that patients from the North would be reimbursed if they had to be treated in the South, so why can people from the South not get similar reimbursement if they have to be treated in the North?

Deputies Michael Collins and Danny Healy-Rae have done much work on this matter. They have brought thousands of people to Belfast to have operations performed in order to stop them from going blind or to replace hips. I have had a number of people from Tipperary accommodated and they got successful treatment. With no disrespect to the Minister of State, it is a scandal that neither the Minister for Foreign Affairs nor the Minister for Health is here to answer this. This has been kicked around on the head of a pin for the last several months because we are frightened. People are ringing every day to try to get in before 1 January. We have all the bilateral agreements and everything else, and people can come here, rightfully so. This Government seems to be making an effort to stop this because it is embarrassed. It would rather let people go blind and have issues with hips, knees, backs, scoliosis, tonsils and everything else, rather than accept what the rural Independent Deputies are doing, which is the Government's job, and help people to get services that they should be getting here. It is an embarrassment that they have to go to the North. We have to have a clear and definite answer, and at least a month's moratorium for January, because there are queues of people waiting to go. It is totally unfair to them. They are sick.

For clarification, this has nothing to do with the Minister for Foreign Affairs who is here. It is a matter for the Department of Health.

It is a matter for the Minister for Foreign Affairs. The Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2020 should have been used to address it but that has not happened.

We are dealing with it as a health issue and the Minister of State is here to deal reply. I am sure he will be more than able to do so.

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. The directive on patient's rights in cross-border healthcare, commonly called the cross-border directive, provides rules for the reimbursement to patients of the cost of receiving treatment abroad where the patient would be entitled to such treatment in his or her home member state. The directive seeks to ensure a clear and transparent framework for the provision of cross-border healthcare within the EU for those occasions where the care patients seek is provided in another member state rather than in their home country.

The EU cross-border directive which has been implemented in Ireland since 2014 has enabled many Irish patients to access health services in many other EU member states. Geographic proximity to Northern Ireland and the UK means that the vast majority of Irish patients tend to access care in that jurisdiction. That is why the decision of our neighbour, the UK, to leave the EU has a very real impact on our citizens. As the cross-border directive is underpinned by EU legislation, from 1 January next, the provisions of this scheme will no longer apply to Northern Ireland and the UK in general. This is an unfortunate and undesirable consequence of Brexit that is outside the Government's control, but the Minister for Health is acutely aware that patients and Deputies are concerned about the loss of access to services, particularly in Northern Ireland, which are accessed under the directive. As part of Department officials' Brexit planning, there has been extensive examination of this matter, which has raised a number of key policy and legal issues.

Noting the importance the Department places on ensuring that Irish patients will continue to access this capacity, the Minister has tasked officials with examining the feasibility of implementing a unilateral arrangement similar to the cross-border directive to provide that Irish residents can continue to access services from private health service providers in the UK post the end of the transition period. That work, which is detailed and complex, is ongoing. I reassure Deputies that it is the Minister's intention that Irish patients should be able to benefit from accessing these services in future. It important to restate that patients will still have recourse to access health services under the EU cross-border directive scheme in 30 other countries from 1 January 2021.

I thank the Minister of State. His reply was a bit confusing in that I am not so sure that the bilateral arrangement will be secured or about what will be covered. He stated that there is an option to go to mainland Europe. I do not think it is fair to tell someone in their 80s or 90s to get on a plane to travel abroad to get a cataract removed, while it is not an option at all for those seeking to have hips and knees replaced or for children of eight years of age.

For such a child that might have cataracts, that is not a real option. I am asking the Minister of State to pull out all the stops to ensure that we get a bilateral arrangement which will ensure that people will be reimbursed.

I appreciate that movement is taking place and it is urgent movement that is desperately required at this stage. I know that other Deputies and councillors besides those of us here are inundated with urgent phone calls from people. They are frantic to get to the North before 31 December because they are going blind. We need 100% confirmation that this scheme or a scheme like it will continue and that people can go to the private hospitals in the North regardless of where they are so that this can continue. I am not making this up because if the Minister of State came down to the lower floor of the Chamber to me later on I will show him a list where over 100 people have phoned me over the last week begging me to take them North because they think that the scheme is going to end.

I appreciate that the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, is here but the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, should be here to answer this. He runs like a scalded cat every time we have a question or a motion down to talk to him. It is a total disrespect to the Rural Independent group. A scalded cat would not go through the skylight as fast as he has gone and he is like snow off a ditch on other occasions. The answer given by the Minister of State is condescending to older people. My colleagues here bus people to the North. Unfortunately we do not have the technology to enable buses to travel on water to go abroad and to tell people that they can go there. We have to tell people at the 11th and a half hour that the Government is looking at a bilateral agreement. It had two years to do this. The Government never accepted that the British were going to go. It should have in order to be ready. We are closing the stable door when the horse has well bolted. We want certainty and to know that people can go.

First, these people should be treated in Ireland and it is the Irish taxpayer who pays for this. It is a mockery that they have to go there but the opportunity was there and I want to thank Niamh and all of the staff in Kingsbridge Private Hospital for being so helpful and to thank Deputy Michael Collins and others who have organised this, together with the staff in Deputy Collins’s office who run around in the middle of the night picking up people to bring them to a bus in Cork. The Government has no idea the effort that goes into this. It is worth it because people can see, stand up and walk and live with some modicum of quality-of-life. This is not acceptable at this point in time. It should have been in the omnibus Bill.

I fully understand the reasons why the Deputies have raised this issue. The decision of our neighbour to leave the EU will have unfortunate, negative implications for Ireland that are outside our control. This includes the loss of access to healthcare services currently provided for through the cross-border directive, CBD, representing a substantive and real loss of access to healthcare services for Irish people. As I said, the Department of Health officials are continuing to examine this matter with a view to ensuring that access to services in Northern Ireland and the UK might be retained in 2021.

Separately, it is useful to note that we have a memorandum of understanding with the UK that will be signed shortly which will ensure continued access for Irish residents to essential healthcare in the UK post the end of the transition period. This is a very positive outcome in terms of the Irish and British Governments’ commitment to maintaining, insofar as possible, the current healthcare arrangements under the common travel area. In addition, on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, I assure Deputies that both the Irish and UK Governments are fully committed to continuing existing cross-border health services like cardiology, cancer treatment services in Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry and paediatric cardiology and related maternity services in Dublin and to ongoing health service co-operation into the future.

Finally, the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, will keep Deputies updated on progress as to the examination by Department officials of the feasibility of implementing a unilateral CBD type arrangement.