Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Táim ag cur ceiste inniu ar an Tánaiste i dtaobh an phá d'altraí atá ag traenáil agus iad ag obair ar an líne thosaigh sna hotharlanna ar fud an Stáit seo. Is iad seo altraí atá ag cur a saol i mbaol ar ár son - fuair cuid mhór acu an víreas Covid-19 agus d'fhulaing siad agus rinne siad íobairtí móra ar ár son. Is iad seo altraí freisin nach gcreideann an Rialtas gur fiú pá a thabhairt dóibh. Nuair a amharcaimid ar an dóigh a dhéileálann an Rialtas seo le pá d'altraí atá ag traenáil, cífimid nach bhfuil dílseacht ar bith ag an Rialtas dóibh sin atá ag obair ar an líne thosaigh. Throughout this pandemic and long before it, our nurses and midwives have been our heroes and the heroes of our health service. Since the outbreak of the virus they have put their own health and the health of their families at risk. That has not deterred them from serving the Irish people. A number of healthcare workers have tragically lost their lives in doing so. With more than 3,000 health workers having contracted the virus during this period, and with our hospitals and health services put under pressure like never before, student nurses and midwives have stepped up and into the breach. They have served their patients, worked alongside hospital staff and provided excellent care in difficult circumstances. The Irish people are proud of them and of their service. They have been taken for granted by the Government.

Last night, the Government voted against a motion to pay student nurses and midwives for the work they do. Many of these student nurses and midwives are asked to work for no pay. That is not good enough. Nobody other than the Government believes it is good enough. It will not be lost on the public that at the same time that these workers are being asked to go without pay as they work on the front line, Deputies in this House have been offered two pay rises in the last year on top of their very generous salaries. What message does that send out to front-line workers, to our student nurses and midwives and to the Irish people? Student nurses and midwives, like all those on the front line, have kept our health services together. The patients in our hospitals who receive care from our student nurses do not see them as student nurses but rightly see them as the people at the end or side of their beds who are caring for them, helping them to recuperate and providing them with the essential services. Hospital managers, consultants and specialists would not have been able to do their jobs if they had not been supported by these student nurses.

Student nurses and midwives are not being paid and no one can stand over this. The reality is that these student nurses and midwives are being taken advantage of, exploited and taken for granted. They deserve so much more. They do not need claps, slogans or platitudes but they deserve to be paid. We asked them to go to the front line to put their lives and their families’ health at risk, and to step up, so the least that can be done is that they are rewarded with decent and fair pay. The Irish people cannot understand why the Tánaiste and his Government are against pay for student nurses at the time of a pandemic and a time when they have stepped up to serve the Irish people and their patients. The payment of the student nurses is a litmus test for this Government and of this Government’s commitment to fairness for front-line workers. It tells us so much about what this Government stands for and whose side it is on.

My question for the Tánaiste is simple. Will he revisit the issue and change the Government’s decision to ensure that student nurses in their first, second and third years should be paid and that other nurses should be paid fairly?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Throughout the course of 2020 and this pandemic we have seen nurses and midwives doing an extraordinary job in our health service, as indeed have all healthcare workers, including doctors, therapists, cleaners, porters, people working in our laboratories and people working in administration, without whom no front-line worker could do his or her job. It has been an excellent and professional job. It is not fair to say that they have been taken for granted. We have seen a very significant increase in staffing levels across our health service to respond to the pandemic. There have also been two pay rises this year, albeit modest ones, in March and in October. In most cases, workers in the public health service would have received a third pay rise in 2020 in the form of an increment.

There are many students in Ireland. The vast majority of students in Ireland do not get paid, including teaching students. Exceptions are made, for example for gardaí in training and for apprentices. Indeed, nurses are among those exceptions and among the few students who are paid. They are paid for their preregistration year, in recognition of the fact that the work they do then is unsupervised and would have to be done and paid for if they did not do it. As the House will be aware, nursing and midwifery students are required to complete 45 weeks of training in total across years one, two and three and for a semester in year four. This is a supernumerary clinical placement that they do to meet the standards and to complete courses. Supernumerary clinical placement is the optimal clinical learning environment. This places students on the front line in a learning capacity as an addition to the workforce. It is fully supervised for certain periods of the year during each year of training. This ensures that students can safely learn, observe and take part in a wide variety of clinical skills acquisition required for qualification.

The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation and students have raised a number of issues around loss of income due to fewer opportunities for part-time work during the pandemic, particularly in nursing homes, together with HR issues in respect of difficulties with rosters, and issues also around overall student well-being, including the increased risk of getting Covid-19 which is a real concern for all of us.

The matter of student pay is also being considered. A review of student allowances is under way and will be completed shortly. It is intended that this outcome, once negotiated with the unions, will take effect from September 2021.

The Tánaiste has again spoken about the extraordinary work being done by our student nurses and indeed by our public health workers across the board and I agree with him. He talks about pay rises but the core of this issue is that student nurses do not get paid for their work. The Tánaiste talks about supervised work as if this is all normal times. This is not normal times. Doctors, consultants and care assistants can see what student nurses are doing. They have stepped up and into the breach and have put themselves and their families at risk. They are on the front line. They are our heroes, the Tánaiste's Government believes they should not be paid for their work. This is something that the Government should not be standing over. The public is angry at this because many people believed that our front-line workers were being paid and rightly so. The penny has dropped and it is now the case that this Government does not value the work that these student nurses are doing in the first number of years.

While the Tánaiste speaks of reviews, what is needed here is a commitment, one that was given by the previous Minister for Health and is now broken by this Government, which was that student nurses will be paid. Can the Tánaiste stand up and defend the position while those who are working in our hospitals as we speak-----

I thank the Deputy.

-----on the front line in Covid-19 wards should not be paid? Will he revisit the issue and do what the Irish people want which is to reward our front-line workers with more than platitudes or rounds of applause?

A Theachta, bheadh sé cabhrach dom dá bhféadfá cloí leis an am, más é do thoil é, mar tá ceannairí eile ag fanacht chun labhartha.

I thank the Deputy. Praise, applause and kind words do not pay any bills or butter any parsnips. I am very aware of that. I am as aware of it as the Deputy is. That is why we have ensured our healthcare workers in Ireland are better paid than is the case in many European countries, such as the United Kingdom and in Northern Ireland where they went on strike not very long ago and where the Deputy’s party is in office. That is why we ensured that all healthcare workers received two pay rises this year, albeit modest ones, one in March and one in October.

This was not the case in other countries. In many cases, there has been a third pay rise, in the form of an increment, for those on a salary scale. Even though most students are not paid in Ireland, we do pay student nurses and midwives in their preregistration year in recognition of the work they do and its value. That is why the matter is currently being considered, as I said in my earlier remarks. A full review of student allowances is under way and it will be completed shortly. There will be discussions with the representatives, and any changes will come into effect in September 2021.

As the Tánaiste knows, I have been asking this week a number of questions on the rolling out of vaccines and our proposals in this regard. I have been doing so in a non-political way, maybe to dial up our preparations for this collectively. The Irish Times reports today that the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, is bringing a memo to the Government next Tuesday on who will be prioritised for vaccination. I understand the Tánaiste briefed his parliamentary party in this regard. However, the Taoiseach said to me on Tuesday and Wednesday that we would have to wait for the report of the expert review group on Friday. Therefore, I am confused. Which date is it? Who is leading on this? Will we know about priorities on Tuesday or will it be on Friday, from the MacCraith expert report? The Cabinet subcommittee is rightly making decisions but so too are the MacCraith expert group, the National Immunisation Office, which does fantastic work, the National Immunisation Advisory Committee, NPHET, the HSE and, obviously, the Department. I am re-stressing a question: who is in control? Who is making the decisions? Who has seniority as regards decision-making? It has to be the Cabinet but we are all aware of the issues that arose when both NPHET and the Government made statements. I have just mentioned a long list of groups that all have a massive role to play, but we must not have confusion. We need one person in charge. I repeat that to the Tánaiste today.

I have asked a plethora of questions but I want to focus on three. About a year and a half ago, there was quite a lot of controversy over the public service card and related issues and concerns. How are we going to manage data with respect to vaccines? The only unique identification code is the PPS number. Hanging off that, in a new database that will have to be built, presumably through the National Immunisation Office, will be a large amount of information on underlying illnesses and personal details. Are we prepared for that? Is new, emergency legislation required?

Second, if a company such as Intel decides privately that it is going to buy the vaccine to give it to its workers, will it be allowed to do so? This goes for any company; I just picked one out of the air. The issue is one of public versus private. Should vaccination not be based on need rather than whether someone can pay for it? Do we need legislation on this? Will the State control how the vaccine is given out? That is an important question.

Public health officials must play a massive role in the roll-out of the vaccination programme but they are going on strike on 14 January, 21 January and 22 January because their pay is 48% less than that of consultants. How is the Government going to deal with this considering the role they will have in the roll-out of the vaccination programme over the next few months? I would appreciate it if the Tánaiste answered those questions.

Those are valid and good questions and I do not necessarily have answers to them all. The Deputy deserves answers to them and I will make sure he gets them. To answer the questions I can answer, the Government is in control. The Cabinet is in control and makes decisions based on advice, as it should. The Minister for Health is the lead Minister when it comes to the vaccine programme, as he is for every other vaccine programme and as he should be.

The task force will report on 11 December, I believe. It is chaired by Professor Brian MacCraith. It is in charge of purchases, delivery, administration, IT systems, communication and all such things associated with the vaccine. It is a really good group and there is no better person than Professor MacCraith to be head of it. Everyone is at the table, including officials from my Department and IDA Ireland because of our engagement with industry and the companies that developed and made the vaccine.

As far as I know — I am fairly sure of this — prioritisation is not a matter for the task force; it is a matter for the National Immunisation Advisory Committee. That is the body that makes these kinds of decisions on other vaccines. We expect a report from it very soon on the order of prioritisation. I do not believe it will be rocket science. Everyone understands that those who will be prioritised include those who need the vaccine the most, including healthcare workers, because they are at greater risk and because there is a risk that they will spread the virus to patients, and residents of nursing homes, those who are older and those with chronic diseases. Logically, for reasons I do not need to explain to anyone in this House, those are the groups that will be prioritised. Perhaps people who work in high-risk environments, such as meat factories, will be also prioritised.

There will be no charge for the vaccine. It will be paid for through taxation. It will be ensured that those who need it the most get it first. We have an option for purchase already with five or six of the companies that have developed the vaccine. We are also providing an indemnity to companies, which we must do given that this is a very new vaccine. We are indemnifying the companies that produce it, as are other member states.

I do not know what private enterprises intend to do. I am aware that they sometimes buy the flu vaccine and provide it as a benefit to their staff. This is unlikely on this occasion, first of all because they have not entered into pre-purchase agreements with the production companies. The Deputy should bear in mind that private enterprises would not be covered by the State indemnity and would be taking on the risk themselves. If the Deputy’s question is whether we should make it illegal for companies to buy the vaccine for their staff, we have not considered that yet.

I thank the Tánaiste. I appreciate his honesty. We do need to decide because private vaccination is an issue. Considering that we must control the process by which the vaccine programme is rolled out, my question is very legitimate. I would appreciate it if it were considered by the Government because it would require legislation.

On data management, we may need emergency legislation. We will support it. The Dáil will be sitting for only one more week this year. Is there an issue, therefore? The data being collated will be intense. We have had issues with data in the past. Will the Tánaiste please consider this?

The Tánaiste is the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. I hear on the radio in the morning that many events are being planned. Longitude is being planned. I am sure the Tánaiste and I would like to get to concerts sometime next year. What advice has the Tánaiste for companies that are spending a considerable amount planning events? Should they expect them to go ahead?

I thank the Deputy. On the issue of companies providing the vaccine privately, it is a matter we will have to examine. We certainly would not want it to undermine in any way our programme of vaccination, which will be free of charge and based on need. It might be the case, however, that the company that produces the vaccine will want to vaccinate its own staff. We would have to think long and hard about preventing it from doing so considering that it developed the vaccine.

On whether legislation will be needed for the vaccine database, I do not know the answer. I will check it out. Secondary legislation, rather than primary legislation, may be required. If it is primary, it will have to come to the House soon. I will certainly raise that with the Minister for Health, if not immediately, by the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

The Deputy is correct that there are now tickets on sale for some major events that we all hope will go ahead next summer. My advice is that there is no guarantee that those events will go ahead. It might be some time yet before we can attend matches, concerts and mass gatherings. I hope it will be possible in the summer. That is far from sure at this point. Under the law, it is possible for companies organising events to cancel and reschedule them. They do not have to refund the cost of a ticket. People buying a ticket should be aware that they are not guaranteed a refund. They might find the event is rescheduled.

Ireland’s 70-year history of generating electricity from peat will come to an end in just 15 days. As Minister responsible for energy, I was instrumental in bringing about a transition from peat but, under my plan, there was to be an orderly winding down of peat harvesting up to 2026. In the next 15 days, however, two of the biggest peat-fired power plants in the world will stop burning peat and close. The west Offaly power station is set to close tomorrow week and Lough Ree power station is set to close seven days later, on 18 December. This decision will bring forward the closures by a decade and will have very serious economic consequences right across the midland counties. It is equivalent in scale to the closure of the likes of Google in Dublin city.

That is why, 18 months ago, I proposed that the Government bring forward and front-load a bog restoration programme to protect existing jobs in Bord na Móna in the short term, pending the reconfiguration of the company. I am glad that the Government took up my proposal which resulted in the Cabinet approval last week of a €108 million large-scale peatland restoration project by Bord na Móna that will create 350 jobs and protect the jobs of many permanent employees.

However, there is a lack of clarity for the 280 seasonal workers. Will they be re-employed? Under what terms and conditions will they be re-employed? Will their annual earnings be significantly curtailed? These are key questions not only for the staff and their families but also for the wider local economy that is so dependent on the spending power of these employees. Will the Tánaiste provide clarity to these employees on their future prospects within the State company, Bord na Móna, in advance of the closure of the two power plants?

What are the future plans for the power stations themselves? It seems that despite concerns being expressed by the Government's just transition commissioner, Mr. Kieran Mulvey, the ESB is determined to demolish both plants. Mr. Mulvey, in his most recent report, stated, "On the visit of the Just Transition team to both Shannonbridge ... and Lanesborough ... we were impressed by the pristine state of the power stations." These two power plants have at least ten years of operation left. They have already been paid for by electricity customers throughout the country. If they are demolished, it is effectively wasting €176 million of electricity customers' money. This is not in the best interests of local staff, the local economy or the country as a whole and electricity customers in particular who will foot the bill for the demolition of both plants and have to pay for alternative technology to provide replacement stability on the electricity grid.

When we think about the history and economy of the midlands, certainly for most of the past hundred years it has been dominated by two semi-State bodies, namely, ESB and Bord na Móna. They have provided well-paid and secure jobs that, in turn, create other jobs because of spending in the local economy by people who work in the ESB and Bord na Móna. That is going to change as we make the transition from brown to green and from a carbon-based economy to a zero-carbon economy. That does not mean it cannot be changed for the better, including in the midlands. That is why the Government is committed to a just transition and why we have dedicated significant funding to the workers, companies and communities affected by the closure of the peat-fired stations and the end of peat harvesting by Bord na Móna. This will ensure significant job retention in Bord na Móna, as well as job creation efforts and new business opportunities for the wider region.

As Deputy Naughten acknowledged, just last week the Government set aside €108 million for Bord na Móna's large-scale peatlands restoration project, which will secure 350 jobs in Bord na Móna and contribute to our target of being carbon neutral by 2050.

I will have to check on the specific question that the Deputy asked about seasonal employees. I expect that they will still be needed because more work is done in the good weather and it is necessary to cover leave arrangements. I will check on that for the Deputy.

The first progress report of the just transition commissioner was published on 22 May. That reflects a comprehensive engagement with relevant stakeholders in the midlands, setting out for the workers, their families and communities the analysis of the challenges facing the region arising from the accelerated exit from peat harvesting. The report contains important recommendations which will guide job creation efforts and create new opportunities for Bord na Móna workers in the midlands. Following the programme for Government commitment, a feasibility study into establishing a green energy hub using the existing infrastructure at the West Offaly and Lough Ree sites has now commenced. This study is being overseen by a steering group chaired by the ESB and includes representatives of the Department of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, the relevant local authorities and other stakeholders. We expect that the work of this group will conclude by the end of this year having regard to the timelines required to meet the company's planning permission obligations on both sites.

I thank the Tánaiste for his response. The reality is that €38 is being wasted in lost operational capacity for every single family in this country, who will be paying for it through their electricity bills. There are also the demolition costs of the two power plants and the replacement electricity reinforcement costs. All of those costs will be footed by families throughout the country.

There are three separate power generation proposals of which I am aware, including the conversion of the power plants to hydrogen fuel power. That would be the first in the world if it were to happen.

We have seen the mistakes that were made in the past with the demolition of our two sugar plants in Mallow and Carlow, which I argued against at the time. Do not let us repeat the mistakes that we made in our sugar industry. Do not let the two power plants be demolished until all possible alternatives have been fully explored.

The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, informs me that the current planning permission for the two sites include an obligation to decommission the power plants and remediate the sites by the end of 2022. Prior to any development opportunity taking place, the ESB must satisfy the legal obligation to remediate the existing sites. In addition, I understand that the power plant equipment cannot be used for any purpose beyond December 2020 because neither the planning consents nor environmental licences cover any such issue. Notwithstanding this, the ESB is committed to the future use of the sites, and a feasibility study is under way to assess how this valuable infrastructure might be used in the longer term, taking account of its location, the infrastructure that is in place and the future requirements of the electricity market.

Buildings in Donegal will today be lighting up for the Purple Lights 20 campaign for the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Mr. Gary Kearney wrote to me in October and asked for my assistance in bringing about the campaign. My friend and well-known outstanding disability rights activist, Mr. Frank Larkin, had been due to help Gary with the campaign for Donegal, but sadly Frank passed away earlier this year. I acknowledge Frank Larkin and the great advocacy work he did in his lifetime for persons with disabilities. I also thank Mr. Liam Ward, director of services in Donegal County Council, for supporting this Purple Lights campaign this year.

In the spirit of nothing about us without us, I wanted to give persons with disabilities an opportunity to have their say. Last Friday, I launched a survey and want to read to the Tánaiste some of the overwhelming number of responses that I have received. I thank Mr. Micheál Kelliher for signing my short video about the survey. One response read:

Disability services are working at reduced capacity due to the fact that HSE staff are being taken from these services to accommodate the need for additional staff for Covid wards/testing centres etc.

Another read:

You don't notice what you have lost until it's gone. For those of us with an acquired disability there is a continuous and overwhelming desire to 'get back to where we were'. Even after decades we remember what it is like to negotiate the world without pain; the pre-planning of journeys; anticipating distances; nodding to the looks of sympathy when the pain is visible - yet wishing they didn't acknowledge at all.

Another read:

I’m a disabled driver living in rural Ireland no transport no choice. I work in my nearest town & had to borrow to purchase my car. I’m one of the lucky ones, I’m earning a salary and can afford to pay a loan. It’s demoralising to watch this government allocate millions to bail out the FAI and most recently grant millions to the greyhound industry but if you have a disability you are not supported.

Another read:

As someone who acquired disability in my 20s and now a wheelchair user I think that is what will surprise people most. Most people assume if this happens you will be supported by government in fact you are not.

Another read:

There needs to be legislation introduced to force businesses to become accessible and have appropriate toilet facilities. This is a human rights and dignity issue. Imagine going for a meal with a group of people and you have no use of toilet facilities. What do you do? Limit fluid intake? Go home early?

Another read:

Well on behalf of my wee man, I would like to highlight the complete lack of consideration given to disabled toilet facilities in public places, i.e. hotels, restaurants etc. The bare minimal amount of space is given. Is it too much to ask for proper spacious bathroom facilities for our disabled folk?

Another read: "Silent pain’s the worst."

In my #YourDayYourSay survey, I asked the question: “As a person with a disability... what is positive about being in Ireland?” The responses included: “The doctors”; “Good doctors but no help from government.”; “There is very little positive. Everything has to be fought for.”; “All negative.”; and "Honestly I’m not sure.”

I asked them what needs to change. One response read:

They need to act not just sign Conventions and then ignore the principles. They know the disabled are stuck at home & couldn't even get to a protest which makes the State all the more hypocritical.

Another read: "To treat all our children equally and provide the same opportunities to all including those with additional needs[.]"

I will ask for something that the Government can do. Will the Government ratify the optional protocol of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities so that persons with disabilities can make complaints to the UN if they want to?

It is an important day on which the Deputy raises these disability issues. I thank him for raising them and I would be interested in seeing a copy of that survey if he wants to pass it on to my office later on.

When I was elected Taoiseach three years or so ago, one of the things I said we would do on the first day I was elected was ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It had not been ratified for decades by previous governments and there was always an excuse as to why it could not be done. I said it had to be done and, working with Finian McGrath, we got it done. I am glad we got it done.

It was always our intention to sign the optional protocol as well and it still is but we have to do it at the right time, when we are ready, and make sure we do it in a way that is meaningful. Many countries ratify conventions and it stops there. We do it the other way around in Ireland. We make sure we can meet the standards of the convention before we sign, which we did when it came to that convention. The same will apply when it comes to signing the optional protocol.

It is right to acknowledge that much progress has been made in recent years, such as increases in the disability allowance and changes to make it easier for people with disabilities to take part in the workplace, particularly around keeping the free travel pass and the medical card if they take up work and if they can. Remote working will be a real opportunity for people with disabilities to get into the workforce who could not before. There has been a huge increase in resources for special education. Not that long ago, there were almost no special needs assistants. Now we have 15,000, 16,000 or 17,000, I think. These are huge numbers and are much needed. It has really transformed education for people with special needs. The same applies to special classes in schools. There are hundreds where there used to be a handful.

In terms of spend, which the Deputy mentioned, the spend across the Departments of Social Protection, Education and Health runs to many billions of euro. I think it may be as much as €5 billion a year. That is many multiples of what we spend helping the FAI or greyhounds and rightly so because people with disabilities in this country are numerous, important and much more valuable than those other things, important as they are.

Another take on our slowness in ratifying the UN convention would be that we just wanted to drag our heels. Other countries ratified the convention straight away and it may have set a benchmark for them to make sure they could achieve it. I would love to think we will ratify the optional protocol. What is the timeframe for that? I would like to know because I do not believe the Government intends to do it and, unfortunately, I do not believe people with disabilities think the Government intends to do it either, which is sad.

We know the budget for disability services and the work that is being done for persons with disabilities but it is not enough. There are people being left behind, ignored and neglected. I ask the Tánaiste to listen to their voices. I will conclude with some of their voices:

People with disabilities are human too, we have feelings, we have needs, we deserve respect for what we live with and [live] through.

Another says:

Children and families are falling through ruptures, not cracks [in relation to the assessment of need]. A two year wait for Occupational Therapy for a child is just not ok.

Those are the kind of things we need to respond to, and to do so properly.

I will speak to the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, about the timelines but it is something we intend to do. There are many countries, for example, in eastern Europe, that nobody would argue have better conditions or services for people with disabilities than Ireland and they signed the convention ten and 20 years ago because they just signed it. Our approach has always been different to every convention of the UN. We do not just sign it. We make sure we meet or at least approach the standards and then we sign it. That is what we did in the last Government. We took the decision that we would do it when it was not done by previous government, and to reach that standard. The same will apply to the optional protocol, which it is our intention to sign.

Among the commitments in the programme for Government, which we are driving forward, are reducing the waiting times for assessment of need under the Disability Act 2005, which are unacceptably long; completing the establishment of progressing disability services for children and young people aged zero to 18; and enshrining disability rights by finalising the legislation required to make sure we are in line with the convention.