Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

I am very concerned at the news this morning that AIB, a State-owned bank, is to proceed with 1,500 job losses and that there has been minimal consultation with the unions. Astonishingly, at the same time as AIB proposes to let 1,500 staff go at a time of very high unemployment, it is also seeking to buy back Goodbody Stockbrokers at a cost of more than €100 million. Not alone that, I understand that big bonuses will be back for the banking sector and will apply to this new entity. As we know, the Minister for Finance is a majority shareholder of AIB. What is the Government's view on these job losses? Has the Minister given AIB permission or approval to proceed? Does the Taoiseach know whether the Minister has raised concerns with AIB on this matter? If it is the case that Goodbody Stockbrokers comes back into the embrace of AIB, will there be a ban on large-scale bonuses?

The Government would view with concern any large-scale redundancies of that kind. Obviously, they are not mandatory redundancies. The indications seem to be that these are issues that will have to be worked out in negotiation but I will obviously discuss this with the Minister for Finance. Conversations will also happen with the banks although I have to stress that the Government does not run AIB. The Deputy knows, as does everyone else in the House, that there has been a very clear demarcation line between the Government and banks in terms of how the latter are operated, notwithstanding the size of the State's shareholding in AIB. That has been the position for well over a decade now and will remain so.

I am not sure if the Taoiseach is aware that a number of section 39 workers represented by SIPTU and Fórsa are demonstrating outside his constituency office in Cork at the moment. They have submitted a claim for pay restoration which the Labour Party supports. These workers have done Trojan work throughout the pandemic and are most valuable members of our community. I sat beside the current Minister for Health when in he was Opposition spokesperson on health and he supported this claim, in great voice. He wondered why such a simple issue could not be dealt with by the then Government and Minister. Now it is down to the Taoiseach and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath. Will the Government honour what it said in opposition and deal with this relatively simple issue for workers that we all value?

I remember that occasion well. I also remember when the trade unions engaged with the Government and said they were in a process

They said they were in what?

They were in a process with the then Government at the time. That is what happened with that particular campaign at that particular time. Some of it was resolved at the higher level in terms of the larger organisations but there was engagement between the unions and the HSE at the WRC. We would seek to have these issues resolved through the proper forums. Of course section 39 workers are essential and section 39 organisations make an enormous contribution. To that end, in the recent budget we made very significant allocations to those organisations over and above the norm in terms of supporting them to get through Covid-19 and beyond.

This has been a very long and difficult year for many people, particularly our healthcare workers including nurses and midwives. They essentially put their lives and the lives of their families on hold and put themselves at risk to look after our vulnerable. This week the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland sent out a retention fee bill for €100 to every nurse and midwife in the country. Our thanks should go further than a clap on the back for these staff and in that context, does the Taoiseach agree that the aforementioned fee should be waived?

Again, organisations and regulatory bodies across the country manage and regulate their membership, including for registration purposes. It is not the function of Government to get involved in every single one at this point. The Government has put unprecedented resources in under the economy. The sums are extraordinary. The Government, through the taxpayer, is providing €1 billion per week to underpin economic activity in the country. We will continue to do that well into 2021. The situation has to be seen in the overall context.

The actor Elliot Page announced yesterday that he is transgender and his announcement has focused world-wide attention today on the issue of transgender rights. The national transgender healthcare steering committee was set up to "develop a seamless and integrated service" for those who present with gender identity issues, with clear pathways of care so that the needs of patient and their families are placed at the centre of service delivery. The committee concluded its work nine months ago, in March, but the report and its recommendations have yet to be published, a fact that is causing real concern and a degree of bewilderment in our transgender community. When will the report and its recommendations be published? When will implementation of the report's recommendations begin?

It is not satisfactory that the report has not been published, notwithstanding the pandemic. Much has happened since March and a lot of normal activity in terms of the way Departments operate has been put on hold but that in itself is not an excuse for the failure to publish this very important report. I will follow up on that, find out why the report has not been published and seek to get it published. Along with the publication, I will ensure that an implementation plan is put in place based on the report's recommendations.

Like most people, I hope that we have a safe, ethically produced and effective vaccine that will help the country to get back to normal. However, I am very concerned by reports that the Government has indemnified the private companies producing these vaccines. I am concerned that this has happened in secret, with no political discussion or scrutiny. Furthermore, when the Government indemnifies private companies, it takes away the economic imperative for those companies to make sure that their product is 100% safe and leaves the country potentially exposed to millions of euro in costs in the future. Has the Government indemnified these private companies or will it do so? If so, what will Ireland be on the hook for, potentially, if all does not go according to plan?

As part of the European pre-purchase agreements, the companies have been indemnified.

There is no set amount. The bottom line here is that we either want a vaccine in the middle of a global pandemic or we do not. Now, get real. This is unprecedented in terms of the progress around getting this vaccine done and without pre-purchase agreements, it simply could not and would not have happened. The bottom line-----

(Interruptions).

This was very clear from the outset to those following the European debate on this. The European Commission, on behalf of the member states, entered into pre-purchase agreements with companies with a view to getting vaccines to deal with a virus that is crippling economies all over the world. If one looks at the trillions of euro that have been spent globally on trying to save economies, keep jobs-----

We cannot get into a lengthy debate-----

The balance is correct in this context. It is the right balance.

I am sorry but I must ask Deputy Tóibín to resume his seat. Deputy Mattie McGrath is next.

The Constitution is meant to be a sacred document and we are meant to be the custodians of it. The Government, by its actions on the advice of NPHET, is destroying the pub, dance and arts industries and is treading on the Constitution. I saw a report last night on the horribly-named wet pubs - I do not know who gave them that name.

During the last lockdown, many such pubs made great efforts to have food prepared in their pubs or to have food brought in. This was done with guidance from the HSE and in line with the hazard analysis and critical control point, HAACP, system. They have now been summarily dismissed and told that they cannot operate under level 3. The Government is changing the goalposts all of the time. I want the Taoiseach to get real and to tell us what he has against the pubs. What does he have against artists and dancing schools? What he is doing is totally illogical and it will fail. The Taoiseach is the only person around here who needs a dose of reality.

I remind the Deputy that this virus kills people. Some 3,000 people on the island of Ireland have died as a result of this virus and many more have suffered long-term health impacts. That is the Government's only motivation in doing what it is doing.

It is unconstitutional.

It is wrong of the Deputy to play politics with this issue and to ask rhetorically what I have against pubs. I have absolutely nothing against pubs.

The Taoiseach should prove it.

The Deputy should not be so silly, for God's sake. This is too serious an issue-----

(Interruptions).

-----to reduce it to that. It is too serious an issue because lives are at stake.

The Government has the pubs ruined.

The measure was enacted for the benefit of the public health.

The Taoiseach is pitting one against another.

Evidence has been gathered which, unfortunately, has connected pubs to the spread of the virus in certain local electoral areas.

That is balderdash.

It is all documented. No one would love to have the pubs open more than I would because they are a vital part of economic life across the country. That has to be said. This sort of divisiveness does not help our overall effort to deal with the crisis. That is why we have provided unprecedented supports to pubs to help them through what I accept is a very difficult and challenging time for them. It is a very difficult time for publicans.

It has been announced that residents in hospitals and nursing homes will be allowed to receive one visit per week. I understand that this is to protect them and other residents but we are now eight months into this pandemic; is there nothing more that we can do to ensure that families can see their parents, children or siblings who may be in hospitals? The issue of antigen testing and the screening opportunities it provides was discussed by EU leaders, including the Taoiseach, in November. Surely people who are willing to undergo regular testing or screening, as healthcare staff do, should be able to visit elderly or young relatives in hospitals or nursing homes or to accompany elderly relatives to tests. I recall bringing my late father to a test in University Hospital Limerick and we had to walk for literally kilometres. He would not have been able to do that alone, and he was not unique in that. We need to allow for a degree of humanity in our healthcare system.

The situation in nursing homes is heart-rending and very difficult. This was presented well last night by RTÉ's "Prime Time", which assessed the situation. From a humane point of view, this is very difficult and sad for residents and their families. It is heartbreaking to see the individual stories of wives who are not able to meet their husbands and vice versa. We have to take strong advice on this issue because the other side of the story is that nursing home residents bore the brunt of the first phase of Covid. There were very high mortality rates in our nursing homes. We are very anxious to prevent a reoccurrence of this during the second phase and through the remainder of the pandemic. That is where the balance has to be struck. On antigen testing, the HSE is looking at applying it in certain healthcare settings. Hospital settings may be first and we may follow on from there.

I started a petition last Friday which now has almost 1,000 signatures. It calls on SouthDoc to reopen its facility on the north side of Cork. I have contacted SouthDoc and asked whether it will reopen this facility. It has said that the closure of the service has had no impact on service provision. Almost 1,000 people would disagree. I have been in touch with the HSE which said that the closure since March is temporary but it has given me no timeline for its reopening. A comment on the Facebook page says that emergencies do not happen only on the south side of the city. There is a hospital and an ambulance base on the south side. We need the SouthDoc facility on the north side to be opened. Will the Taoiseach commit to having this vital facility open before Christmas?

As Minister for Health and Children, I established SouthDoc. I remember receiving a very colourful letter from the late Deputy, Jackie Healy-Rae, who was also an advocate for the service at the time. All of its facilities have made a very significant contribution. I will pursue the issue of the SouthDoc facility on the north side of the city with the HSE. I will ascertain the rationale for the decision and see if we can make progress on the issue.

I welcome the inquiry into the prescribing of valproate, known as Epilim, to pregnant women without informing them of the harm it was likely to do their unborn children which was announced last week by the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. I thank the Minister for keeping his word. When is the inquiry going to commence? Will the Minister engage with OACS Ireland, the families impacted and Epilepsy Ireland in designing the terms of reference in order to establish who knew what and when and why nobody did anything to stop it? The great tragedy of the valproate scandal is that the harm caused to approximately 1,250 children between 1975 and 2015 here, in addition to thousands in France and the UK, was totally avoidable. Can the children, who have now received diagnoses of foetal valproate syndrome and foetal anticonvulsant syndrome now receive the domiciliary care allowance? Families with a diagnosis are getting turned down and this is not right.

I understand the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, has initiated an inquiry into the sodium valproate issue. I will talk to him about the timelines, which I am sure will be published in due course.

I raise the very important issue of home care support assistants in County Kerry. I will explain what happens. The Taoiseach will know of the excellent work these home care assistants do in our communities taking care of people who want to stay in their own homes. They get paid travelling expenses for going to people's homes. Some use one or two full tanks of diesel or petrol every week in doing their work. They get paid retrospectively. In other words, they should get November's money this December. They have been told, however, that the administrative staff in the HSE who do the paperwork that would allow them to be paid their November travel expenses in December will not be there to do that work. In other parts of the country, home care assistants will be paid this expense. By the time January comes, these people will have incurred the costs of all their travel in November and December without receiving €1 for it. That is wrong. They have spent that money. There is wear and tear on their vehicles. It is a very important issue.

I will check that out with the HSE and see what the story is.

We have 78,000 nurse and midwives and these must, by law, be listed on the register of nurses and midwives. The fee for such registration is €100. It would be good recognition of the great efforts front-line workers have made during the Covid pandemic if the State were to pay this fee for nurses and midwives this year.

Given the dedication and hard work of our nurses during the pandemic, will the Taoiseach commit to waiving the registration fee for nurses? The attitude to nurses the Government has shown of late has been less than perfect. Earlier, when the motion on pay for student nurses and midwives was being debated, we heard how our student nurses were being undervalued, taken for granted and expected to work hard for little financial recompense. Our nurses deserve more than applause from Government. Their immense contribution to fighting Covid-19 at risk to their own health and to the detriment of their home lives must be recognised properly.

The Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland administers this retention fee on an ongoing basis. This issue has not been brought before Government.

Government has provided unprecedented resources targeted at improving services across the health sector and at improving the working environment and working conditions of nurses.

The impact of the winter initiative can be seen so far in terms of the better flow through hospitals in emergency departments and so on.

That said, I will talk to the Minister for Health on this but there is a range of registration bodies in health which register a range of professionals across the health area. The Government focus today has been on more the general allocation of money to try to improve and expand services.

The Taoiseach has hurt many thousands of rural publicans, customers and people. What he has done, no other Fianna Fáil leader or Taoiseach in the past would have done to rural Ireland. What the Taoiseach has done is anti-village and anti-rural. Publicans and customers will have no Christmas. They are saying the Taoiseach does not care and that he has his job for another year or so and he is happy with that. The Taoiseach has belittled rural publicans and rural people. He does not trust them. Yet, there will certainly be plenty of unregulated drinking, as the Taoiseach and I know, and we will need good strong jeeps and vehicles to find them.

Talking about Roald Dahl and Mr. Fox and that kind of nonsense on the radio or television is no compensation to the people of rural Ireland. Where is the Taoiseach's evidence and scientific proof that pubs in rural Ireland were the cause or would be the cause of transmitting the virus? Where is that evidence? If the Taoiseach has it, he should bring it forward because he has not put it out yet.

The publicans have served the people well throughout the length and breadth of rural Ireland. It is obvious to them that the Taoiseach is protecting the pubs in Dublin. He is afraid to open the pubs in Dublin but he is pointing the finger at every rural pub throughout Ireland. Their businesses are lying in ruin thanks to the Taoiseach. For four years, he was attacking them by backing up Fine Gael and that party's cuts and destroying them in every which way. Now, the Taoiseach is at the helm and he is doing the same. The banks are down on their backs. Their mortgages have to be paid. They are earning not one crust and the Government is standing idly by. The Taoiseach has led to their destruction and in every town and village in rural Ireland it will never be forgotten what the Taoiseach has done to these pubs. I can assure the Taoiseach that if he thinks it will be forgotten, he is a very foolish man at this hour in his life.

Where I am living in Granagh, there is no pub open now within a 15-mile radius. The pubs in Granagh, Ballingarry, Croom, Feenagh, Ballyagran and Croagh are all closed.

What the Taoiseach is doing to all the people in my area, in a 15-mile radius, is shoving them into towns and cities if they wish to meet someone. We have small communities. We have small rural pubs where our people go to have a sociable drink. They are small monitored crowds. What the Taoiseach does not have in his statistics is how he is going to police the parties where people will congregate. The Taoiseach has no statistics for that. At least if someone goes to a pub there is written documentation of who has been there and who has not been there. The Taoiseach should stop nailing the lid on the coffin of rural Ireland.

Again, I have to say that I am not anti-rural, anti-village or anti-pub. There is nothing I would like better right now than a pint in some rural pub in an idyllic village in the west of Ireland - I can assure the Deputies of that.

Where is the Taoiseach's evidence?

That is not something I will be able to participate in for some time yet. That is not the fault of Government. It is not the fault of anyone. It is the fault of a virus, a global pandemic.

The ultimate objective of Government is to protect human lives and to protect those most vulnerable in our society. We have to make judgment calls. We have to make calls based on evidence. We have published the evidence. The evidence is available and we can look at it from August into September and right into October. Unfortunately, it is from the time when pubs were open. It is no fault on the publicans.

The Taoiseach has no evidence.

I have said repeatedly that I accept their goodwill in terms of their efforts to implement the guidelines. However, we need to consider the reality of what happened in many locations. One only has to look at the index going up in terms of the number of cases in certain areas after events combined with the opening of the wet pubs in my city. This is not only in rural Ireland.

(Interruptions).

It is also in cities. In Galway and Cork, for example, there was a significant increase at a given period as well as in rural areas. The evidence, unfortunately, is there for that.

The bottom line is that we could have taken a decision to open the pubs, but we would have done it clearly in the knowledge that we would have been contributing to an exponential rise in numbers fairly quickly. That is the issue, basically. Unfortunately, that is the issue. It is a genuine desire to try to save lives. People should not try to play politics to the degree that they are playing politics with it.

This the most anti-rural Government.

They are putting more work on the Garda.

There is a situation at the moment is south Louth and east Meath where up to 5,000 pupils and 260 teachers are without access to a teacher supply panel. The Department of Education sent out a directive to the effect that special education teachers should step in where no substitute teacher is available. That is totally unacceptable because it disadvantages further special educational needs children. Why should they lose their resources because of the Department's shortcomings? Principals in my constituency have said that children will have to stay home if this matter is not addressed as a matter of urgency.

I contacted the Minister for Education more than two weeks ago. I got nothing back and there has been silence. Given that the Government said it is a priority to keep schools open and given the urgency of this, will the Taoiseach give a commitment to ensure a teacher supply panel is set up immediately for the south Louth and east Meath area?

I will engage with the Minister for Education and talk to her on this specific issue. I do not have the details before me.

The Government has made it an absolute priority to keep schools open. It is not only a Government issue; it is a societal issue and priority. It reflects well on Ireland that in the middle of a global pandemic we accept that the learning opportunities for children are our number one priority. This has posed challenges, not least on the supply side. We knew that in advance of September. That is why significant resources were made available by the Minister for Education to deal with the different challenges that emerged. We must do everything we possibly can to ensure children are not disadvantaged and that they do not fall victim to this virus in any meaningful way.

The programme for Government commits the Government to a review of the Mercosur trade deal. Many farmers fear that review is simply a delaying tactic on the part of Government.

This week we learned that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon surged in the past year. Over the past 12 months a total of 11,000 sq. km of forest have been destroyed. Most of this forest is destroyed to make way for beef ranches. That beef is expected to supplement or remove Irish beef from supermarket shelves across Europe if the EU Mercosur trade deal moves forward. On the basis of this new evidence, will the Taoiseach now commit the Government to vetoing the EU Mercosur trade deal?

I have already signalled our concerns at European level in respect of the Mercosur deal and its compatibility with the climate change objectives of the European Union. Indeed, at the forthcoming summit next week I will be raising this in the context of discussions on climate change. There is a real issue about how Mercosur reconciles with the climate change agenda given the Brazilian Government's policy approach to the Amazon and to the wholesale destruction of the Amazon that is clearly under way. I do not believe the two are compatible.

The assessment referenced in the programme for Government by Deputy Carthy is not a delaying tactic. It is work that is necessary in any event and will be proceeded with.

I imagine the Taoiseach is aware of the 27 Ability Programmes nationally. One such Ability Programme is provided by Wexford Local Development. It started in autumn 2018. This Ability Programme has already helped more than 70 young people with mild to moderate disabilities to participate and become part of the modern-day workforce. In County Wexford only 19% of people with disabilities participated in the workforce out of a possible 22,000. The importance of the Ability Programmes to participants and their families cannot be over-emphasised.

These 27 projects funded by the Ability Programme are financed by the Departments of Finance and Social Protection, in line with the European Social Fund, ESF. To see these successful projects, including the Wexford Local Development project funded by the Ability Programme, close would be letting down our core principles of inclusion and the right to work. Will the Taoiseach commit to ensuring the continuation and certainty of these programmes, because the finance runs out in June 2021?

Yes, we will have a look at that again. These are good and important programmes, and we want to expand participation in them. I do not, therefore, believe that the money will run out in June 2021.

That concludes Questions on Promised Legislation. Seven names on this list and five or six on another list have not been reached. The lists will continue into tomorrow.