Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

In addition to the leaders, I have 12 names held over from yesterday, so I will go on to them and then on to the additional names. I ask for Deputies' co-operation.

I raise again the issue of the review of gynaecology services at Letterkenny University Hospital, LUH. I raised this with the Tánaiste a fortnight ago here in the Dáil. It entails shocking cases of delays and misdiagnoses. I have also written to the Tánaiste and the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, twice in the space of those two weeks asking that action be taken in relation to this report. I still await a reply. The women and their families are waiting on answers and on progress.

The Tánaiste said a fortnight ago on the floor of the Dáil that he would read the report and look at the recommendations. He said he would speak to the Minister for Health about the report. I ask again whether the Tánaiste has had that chance to read the report into the gynaecology services at LUH. Is he mindful of the fact that that review talks about how women lost their lives as a result of the delays and misdiagnoses? Has he discussed the report and recommendations with the Minister for Health? Will the Government commit to a wider independent review of services at LUH because the people of Donegal are waiting for answers?

I thank the Deputy. On foot of him raising the matter with me in the Dáil a few weeks ago, I sought and received a written report on that matter, which I have read and raised with the Minister for Health personally and with his Secretary General. I would be happy to send the Deputy a copy of the report that I received, which is an overview of what occurred and an outline of what will be done.

AIB has announced it will cut 1,500 jobs, closing many rural branches again. The State owns 71% of the bank. My party was the only party in the State that voted against bailing the banks out ten years ago or more. AIB had profits of €1.25 billion in 2018 and €500 million in 2019. Now it is engaged in a vanity project of buying back Goodbody Stockbrokers, which it sold during the crash. It is also charging serious fees to people who have less than €2,500 in their bank accounts and will not engage with the Financial Services Union. What will the Government do to protect those workers in a bank that is 71% owned by the State?

The rights and wrong of the bank bailout and guarantee could be and, no doubt, will be debated for decades but I am certain that, had they not been bailed out, all of those staff would have lost their jobs ten or 12 years ago. That is exactly what happened to the staff at Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and other banks which were allowed to fail.

The banking sector is changing, like many sectors. It is moving online, being digitalised and automated. That is happening in the real world around us. The vast majority of people no longer set foot in a bank branch, whereas people used to regularly go into bank branches. That has changed and the sector has to adapt to that. I had a good meeting with the Financial Services Union a few weeks ago to discuss some of the changes. One thing they have suggested is a banking forum being established to think through what the future of banking services will look like in the country. I am taking that up with the Minister for Finance.

The Tánaiste will be familiar with the Keltoi drugs rehabilitation service, based in the Phoenix Park.

On 20 March, HSE staff were redeployed from Keltoi, a 20-bed residential treatment centre that specialises in the treatment of people with alcohol and drug dependency and dual diagnoses. Keltoi is under the management of community healthcare organisation, CHO 9 addiction services and was temporarily closed to create an isolation unit for Covid-positive people. That the staff have no idea when they will be returning to Keltoi is causing them significant stress.

Recently, it has become clear that the people who have been placed in the centre to isolate have come via section 39 services, for example, the Coolmine service. Since Keltoi is a HSE facility, this does not seem right. Covid-positive people can be accommodated in facilities such as Citywest to allow the Keltoi centre to reopen.

A recent review of the Keltoi service has highlighted the specialist work it carries out. In light of the clear evidence of a high incidence of drug and alcohol addiction relapse and the deterioration of people's mental health, is it not time we reopened Keltoi in its intended form?

I thank Deputy Gannon for raising this matter. I am familiar with the Keltoi centre, it being a service located in my constituency, but I am not up to date on the plans to reopen and restore it to its former use. I will get an update from the Minister of State, Deputy Frankie Feighan, who is responsible for this matter, and forward it to the Deputy.

In the programme for Government, the Government committed to returning the support of healthcare workers for their willingness to protect us all. Last night, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party betrayed their promise to healthcare workers, in particular student nurses and midwives, by voting to delete the People Before Profit-Solidarity motion calling for those workers to be paid. For that betrayal, shame on Fine Gael, shame on Fianna Fáil and shame on the Green Party. I have been inundated since last night by the student nurses and midwives who worked with us on putting the motion together. They are not giving up the fight. They are now talking about the action and campaign that they will escalate-----

What is the Deputy's question?

-----to make the Government hold to its promise in the programme for Government to reward our front-line healthcare workers, including student nurses and midwives, for their work in protecting us all.

I thank the Deputy, but we must stick to the time.

Deputy Doherty also raised this matter and I gave him a detailed response. Perhaps Deputy Boyd Barrett was not present at the time. As he knows, the majority of students are not paid. However, nursing students are paid in their pre-registration year in recognition of the fact that they are among a small group of students who do valuable work for which they should be paid. A review of their wider allowances and remuneration is under way. It will be discussed with their union. Any change that is made will come into effect in September 2021. What Deputy Boyd Barrett did last night was pure party politics.

I thank the Tánaiste, but I am moving on.

It would not be worth a euro to any student nurse. What is done will be done by us.

The Government took the money.

The personal insolvency (amendment) (No. 1) Bill is listed under the justice and equality heading on page 11 of the legislative programme. When is it expected to be published and tabled in the House? I have been contacted about a recent High Court decision by Mr. Justice McDonald concerning debt-for-equity swaps in personal insolvency cases, which has effectively excluded thousands of distressed mortgage holders from achieving a solution that allows them to retain their homes. Will this situation be addressed in the proposed legislation? I want the Tánaiste's assurance that the Bill is not only for the benefit of creditors and banks, but addresses serious issues for struggling mortgage holders. They are homeowners - I do not use "home" lightly - with families.

I thank the Deputy. I am advised that the Bill will be taken in the next session, that is, the spring session of 2021.

I have approached the Tánaiste many times about Tipperary town. The Government set up a task force under Ms Alison Harvey. I am asking that it be expanded to include hard-working groups in the town's hinterland. The Great National Hotels group is selling off the golf course in Ballykisteen at Limerick Junction. The Tánaiste has often been in its hotel there. If the course goes, the hotel will go. It is a focal point and important infrastructure in the region. We have nothing else like it. Will the Tánaiste ask the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, to whom I have written, to intervene? The golf course could be kept. The captain of the golf club is Mr. Michael Lynch. Several groups want to retain this amenity. We are in the Covid pandemic and golf is an outdoor sport. The course is used considerably. We need the golf course and the hotel. We cannot lose this valuable piece of infrastructure. Will the Tánaiste intervene, please?

I am not sure if I have been in that hotel or at that golf course. Maybe I have, but people over the past couple of weeks have been placing me in all sorts of places I have not been. Perhaps this is one of the latest examples, but that does not matter.

The task force has been established and its work is under way. Whether it can be extended to include the wider area is something about which I would have to speak to the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Peter Burke. I will do so.

Businesses across the country are coming out of the Covid lockdown. In Donegal, they have been asking me whether the supports they and their staff received while in lockdown would continue if they chose not to open at this time. I have emailed the Tánaiste's office about this matter, but I have not been able to get a response. That is why I am raising it now. Will he respond, please?

The straight answer is, it depends on the scheme. For example, staff who have been laid off will retain the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, regardless of what their employers decide to do in terms of reopening. They have to be available for work, but that payment will not be taken away from them while they are laid off.

The employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, is based on a company's turnover and to what extent that turnover is down. The weekly Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, payment is only paid if the company is required to close. If it is allowed to open but chooses to stay closed, it will no longer receive the weekly payment. We are giving an extra week's payment to all businesses that reopen in recognition of the fact that they need a little extra cash flow for their first week open.

I ask that Deputies be brief with their questions. That way, more Deputies will be able to speak.

When the Tánaiste was Taoiseach in July 2019, he made a welcome apology to the victims of child sex abuse in day schools. It was appreciated. This is now December 2020. The Tánaiste will be aware that the ex gratia scheme at the time was not fit for purpose. Thanks to the good work done by Mr. Justice Iarfhlaith O'Neill, the requirement for a prior complaint was seen to be nonsense, and due to the failure to address a number of people's issues, it was removed. My understanding is that the ex gratia scheme is still being reviewed. When will the review be concluded? Will the Tánaiste confirm that students who attended the Creagh Lane school in my constituency of Limerick City, which I have raised in the Dáil a number of times, will be included in the review?

Recently, the Government approved the draft 12th action plan to the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers responding to the 2014 ruling in the Louise O'Keeffe case. In Mr. Justice O'Neill's review of 19 cases that had not been successful in their applications to the ex gratia scheme, he concluded that 13 were entitled to a payment from the scheme. Sixteen offers of payment have now been made. We appreciate that some people who did not apply to the scheme in the belief that they would not have been eligible would have been eligible under the O'Neill principles. We are reviewing the scheme. An extensive engagement between the Department of Education and the Attorney General's office is ongoing. The idea is to amend the scheme and reopen it - technically it would be a new scheme - for people who ought to have received a payment but did not or who did not apply because they did not believe they would receive a payment.

We have not brought that to a conclusion yet but it has been discussed. We hope to bring it to a conclusion soon.

Home support services in many areas are not being renewed. Individuals are being told that from February, older residents and individuals being released from hospital will be left without care. Home support service providers in Ringsend have been told they cannot take on any new clients from February. Will the Tánaiste ensure the residents in Ringsend are not excluded from home support services?

The intention is that all parts of the country are treated equally when it comes to home care. I know that is not always the case, but it certainly should be. I am surprised to hear what Deputy Andrews has to say because the amount of funding put into home care was increased by 40% in the past couple of years and is being increased again in 2021. While some people may not need it anymore, those who do should continue to receive it. If the Deputy wishes to pass on any correspondence or issues regarding Ringsend or his constituency, I will make sure they are looked into and taken up with the Minister.

As the Tánaiste will be aware, we have Debenhams workers outside shops while inside shops we have Arcadia Group workers who face the exact same situation in January. These workers received a WhatsApp message from the Arcadia Group that was directed to British workers. They did not receive a message addressed to them.

Like the Debenhams workers, they have an agreement for a four-week redundancy payment scheme and have been told this will not be honoured. They have six weeks of trading ahead and tens of millions of euro will be collected by the Arcadia Group and yet the workers have already been told they will only get the statutory redundancy.

Today, we learned that Debenhams was sold to a vulture group for €600 million, and yet it collected €1.2 billion in profit before closing down and leaving the workers with nothing. The system we have at the moment is being cheerleaded by the Government, which is unfortunate.

I thank the Deputy.

Anything the Debenhams workers have asked for, the Arcadia Group workers are now asking for. We were warned; we were told and we knew this was going to happen.

A question, Deputy.

It is happening. January and February will be a bloodbath for people who are working in that-----

I thank the Deputy.

Retail is changing. It is simplistic to put these things down to matters of company law or which fund bought what business. The truth is that retail is changing. People have moved online. Last week in Ireland, more money was spent online than physically. As a result, retail is going to transform before our eyes. It was happening anyway. There was inevitability that we would see more people shopping online. That means the number of people who work in high street stores will fall. No ideology or political party will change that reality. It has been happening before our eyes for many years now and has been accelerated by the pandemic. This is happening regardless of the ownership structure of companies.

Under our law, if made redundant, people have a statutory right, a legal entitlement, to two weeks per year of service, up to a certain limit. Anything agreed beyond that can only be honoured if the money is there to fund it. I cannot say in this situation whether the money will be there to fund it but, generally, when a company goes bust, it leaves many debts and many people are owed money. In most cases, people only get a proportion of what they are owed.

I remind Deputies we are dealing with items under promised legislation. If we use the time effectively, everybody will get in.

The Irish fishing industry is hanging at the edge at this time due to Brexit negotiations and the British insistence that all EU trawlers vacate UK waters on 21 December 2020. On top of this, we heard at the agriculture and the marine committee on Tuesday there will be a 5% decrease in white fish fleet fishing next year, which will mainly hit fishermen from Castletownbere in the south west. This is on top of successive Irish Governments being unable to get lucrative bluefin tuna quota while our European counterparts are securing ample amounts of quotas.

During negotiations with the Government, I pleaded with the Tánaiste, the Taoiseach, Deputy Martin, and the Minister, Deputy Ryan for a stand-alone Minister with responsibility for fisheries, which fell on deaf ears. We are now seeing the total destruction of Irish fishing rights to Irish fish in our sea. In negotiations last week, Mr. Michel Barnier was offering 80% more fish to the UK, which was rejected. Whose fish is Mr. Barnier giving in these negotiations?

I distinctly recall the Deputy calling for a dedicated Minister with responsibility for fisheries. As is so often the case, however, when people call for a new senior Minister, they do not tell us which Ministry should be abolished. Our Constitution says there can be only 15 senior Ministers. This week the Labour Party called for a Minister with responsibility for vaccines and now Deputy Collins is calling for a Minister with responsibility for fisheries. What Ministry will go? Is it education, foreign affairs or health? Nobody ever says-----

What about the office of the Taoiseach?

Perhaps, the office of the Taoiseach. We could have a Government with no Taoiseach, perhaps. I do not know.

The question was whose fish are being sold?

If one Deputy does not have a serious or substantive suggestion then the adage might be, "Call for a new Minister". The negotiations are under way. Everyone knows how the Common Fisheries Policy works. We are doing the best we can to make sure we secure as good a deal as possible for Irish fishermen and for the whole industry. We all know this is a difficult one, however. Some 35% of the fish we take out of the waters come from UK waters. The UK has now left the European Union and is no longer part of the Common Fisheries Policy.

The Government is handing over our fish.

The programme for Government acknowledges that the impact of Covid-19 has been particularly difficult for our older people. It rightly states, "Learning from Covid-19, we will assess how we care for older people and examine alternatives to meet the diverse needs of our older citizens." When will the promised commission to examine care and supports for older people be established? Can we help develop a plan to ensure our older people are included in society this Christmas? Older people feel they are lost at the moment and they need physical and mental care. Their health needs to be looked after. I ask that we make sure they feel part of Christmas this year.

I will double-check, but I believe the intention is that the commission on care will be established next year. It is long overdue. The number of elderly people in the country is rising all the time and we need to make sure they are cared for properly in their own home and in their community whenever possible. I add my thoughts those of Deputy Ryan with regard to Christmas.

I want to tell the Tánaiste about a young boy from Navan in County Meath called Conor Jordan, who is six years old. In November of 2016, his parents were given the news that Conor has autism. Conor has had many obstacles thrown at him but his parents, Louise and Declan, said he has made much progress since starting school. This fun-loving child makes them laugh and smile every single day.

Last year, Conor was partnered with a canine friend called Koby. Koby is not just any dog; he is a canine companion that will be trained over the coming months to protect Conor and make his everyday life safe. Koby is also a family dog and he will be part of the Jordan family. It will give Conor's parents great satisfaction knowing that when their son is older, Koby will keep him safe. The canine companion does not come cheap.

The Deputy might ask the question at this point.

It costs €10,000 to train a canine companion. As they do not receive any State funding, families go through the burden of trying to raise costs through GoFundMe pages. Were it not for the help of family and friends, we would see these beautiful kids growing up without a companion.

I ask the Tánaiste to consider funding for the likes of My Canine Companion and other organisations that do great work so families do not have the burden of raising the money.

I thank Deputy Guirke for telling me about Conor Jordan and the difference that companion dog has made in his life. I have seen that with people who have been provided with a companion dog and the amazing difference it can make. I am not sure what the situation is regarding Government funding for those organisations but I am happy to check it out and see if there is something we can do.

I again raise the issue of student accommodation refunds. I am dealing with a parent who has paid €5,000 to a private provider in Galway and whose son's course has since gone fully online. I met a representative of the students' union at the National University of Ireland, Galway, NUIG, last week, which is dealing with about 30 families seeking refunds from the same accommodation provider. The reason given by the provider for not paying the refund is that the Government does not have restrictions in place on the use of student accommodation facilities. This is a disgrace. Parents are under immense pressure and many have to borrow to pay these student accommodation fees. I ask that the Government intervene on these matters and that students get refunds of their accommodation fees.

I am sorry to hear about that situation. As I think the Deputy will know and appreciate, when it comes to any form of accommodation, it depends on the contract that was signed on the lease or licence agreement and no Government can change a contract retrospectively. If somebody enters freely into a contract to buy a service or pay for accommodation, it is what the contract states that matters. Unfortunately, there is not any way that any Government or Oireachtas can change a contract that people signed and freely entered into. Perhaps the best thing for the Deputy to do would be to take a look at the contract and see whether she can provide the parent with some legal advice as to what his options are.

It has come to my attention that banks are refusing mortgages to people on the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, and other similar pandemic subsidies from the Government. I refer not just to one bank but to many, in different counties, so it is now a systemic problem. One might say a mortgage relationship is a private contractual relationship between an applicant and a bank, but one might equally say accommodation is a private contractual relationship. Nevertheless, we have outlawed discrimination by landlords against people in receipt of the housing assistance payment, HAP. If this practice continues, will the Government ban discrimination against mortgage applicants whose employers are in receipt of the employment wage subsidy scheme?

This has come to my attention too. There are a number of cases in my constituency, and I have discussed the issue with the banks and will do so again in the regular engagement I have with them. I do not think it is simple as a matter of discrimination. Banks have certain responsibilities and among them is to engage only in prudent lending. If they lend money to somebody who cannot pay it back, that has an impact on wider society. It means a loan is not paid back and harder credit and higher interest rates for everyone else.

Banks have a social responsibility, therefore, to ensure they do not engage in lending money to people who cannot pay it back. One of the real concerns that a bank has, and has to have, in respect of somebody on the employment wage subsidy scheme is whether that job will still be there in three, six or nine months' time when the scheme is gone. It is something they have to take into account. I know that is difficult to hear but it is not in anyone's interests for banks to issue mortgages to people who might not be able to repay them. We hope that in the vast majority of cases, people who are on the EWSS will not have to be on it in a few months' time and that they will be fully paid by their employer again, but there is a risk they will not and banks have to take that into account because of the wider social implications.

We move now to today's list. Seven Deputies have indicated but we will not reach all of them. I call Deputy Gould and ask him to be as quick as possible.

One of the only positive things to come out of the pandemic is that the Government put in place emergency structures for the supply of medical cannabis to people such as Vera Twomey's daughter Ava. Before the pandemic, the Government stated this could not be done, and families had to travel to the Netherlands and other places to get medical cannabis. Will the Government commit to making the emergency temporary structures that are in place the norm, so that families will not have to worry and feel the uncertainty of having to travel for their medicine?

I am really not sure why it is taking so long to sort out this issue of medical cannabis. It has been discussed for years in this Chamber. Emergency arrangements were put in place, which the Deputy mentioned, but we should by now have in place standing arrangements that work for people for whom the drug has been prescribed by a specialist. It is an issue that falls under the remit of the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, rather than me but I will take it up with him. It is an issue we are keen to sort out once and for all.

I raise a problem that people with diabetes face in my area, the mid-west region. I have been contacted by a constituent with diabetes who said that services for adults with the condition in Tipperary, Limerick and Clare are severely lacking. She inquired about accessing an insulin pump but found that she would have to go to Cork to do so. I have since become aware that this is the case throughout Tipperary, Limerick and Clare because this service in the University Hospital Limerick is available only for children with diabetes. A service for adults is not available and they have to travel to Cork, Galway or Dublin. This is just one of a range of problems for people with diabetes in the region, which also includes regular appointment cancellations because there are not enough staff to provide the service. As the Tánaiste will be aware, regular appointments are important for people with diabetes; otherwise, they could face severe complications.

Do the Government and the Minister for Health have plans to address the problem in the near future?

I appreciate this is an important issue that the Deputy is absolutely right and entitled to raise in the House. Unfortunately, I do not have an update to hand and I do not want to mislead him. I will certainly tell the Minister the matter was raised and try to get the Deputy a written reply next week.

The next Member indicating is Deputy Ó Murchú. We do not have time for a question, so the Deputy might make a quick comment if wishes, or I can leave his name on the list for the next sitting.

The French system at Calais has not allowed for an exemption for Irish goods exported through the land bridge in Britain. Multiple contingency issues will need to be dealt with but the Tánaiste might comment specifically on that one. I will not get into the ins and outs of the difficulties with regard to the port tunnel and the possibility of using it as a car park for the port.

I am aware of that. I will meet the French minister for European affairs over the weekend and it is one of the issues I will discuss with him.

A number of Deputies have not been reached but all I can do is carry over their names to next week. I apologise.

Sitting suspended at 1.08 p.m. and resumed at 1.28 p.m.