An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

The House has agreed that, for the duration of the Covid crisis, the rapporteur's report on the Business Committee will be taken as read. There are, however, three proposals to be considered by the House. Is the proposal for dealing with Tuesday's business agreed to?

It is not agreed.

It is important we have proper scrutiny with regard to Brexit preparedness and readiness. There are several issues which need Dáil attention. In particular, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, we need to look at contingency issues with regard to price inflation and how that would affect low and middle-income households. Several issues relating to the UK land bridge are arising in terms of potential delays at Dublin Port, Holyhead, Dover and Calais. There is the potential for non-green laning of Irish trucks with the French not having the technical capability to do that.

We have seen the UK publish its national audit of preparedness and readiness for Brexit. We need to see the Irish audit of readiness and preparation for Brexit published soon. We need a question and answer session on Brexit this week in the Dáil.

I agree. I also want to register my concerns for the readiness for the fishing industry and the serious losses that will impact it, as well as connectivity with Europe and the cross-border health directive. We need a debate on these. We are being held on a string with the EU cross-border health directive. Thousands have travelled to use health services but we understand the scheme will now be handed back to the HSE, which failed the people in the first instance.

We need to debate those issues in the Parliament this week or certainly on this side of Christmas. After that, it is into January. Then it will be all out the gap and at the mercy of the waves. We need a debate on those issues.

I thank the Deputies for raising the issue. The necessity for a debate on Brexit preparedness is a fair point. We must be honest too. We did have a good debate in the context of the Brexit omnibus Bill that went through the House two weeks ago. Various Ministers took that Bill in respect of their various areas of responsibility in terms of preparations and decisions we have taken for Brexit.

Even in the event of a deal, we are still facing a significant degree of disruption. One is going from 1.5 million customs declarations per annum prior to Brexit to 20 million per annum, even in the context of a trade deal. The enormity of this cannot be understated. Notwithstanding the fact that approximately 72,000 companies have registered with Revenue, representing 97% of the value of our exports, quite a significant number of SMEs have not registered and are not prepared. There has been a low take-up of the €9,000 grant to facilitate companies to employ someone to help them with their customs issues.

Whether we could do it next week might be a problem. I have to go on Wednesday afternoon for the Council meeting on Thursday and Friday. I must alert the House to the fact that we could be very well discussing preparations for a no-deal Brexit. The situation is serious in terms of where we are now. This is not about choreography, as some people might think. There is a very serious issue with respect to the level playing field that will be difficult to resolve. Unfortunately, we are facing the prospect of a no-deal Brexit if something does not break that over the next day or two. That is why I have no difficulty in accepting the request.

I welcome the decision of the British Government to pull back and withdraw the offending clauses of the internal market Bill, as well as not to proceed with the offending clauses in the taxation Bill later this week. That paves the way for the operation of the protocol and the withdrawal agreement which the European Commissioner, Maroš Šefčovič, and Michael Gove have been negotiating for quite some time.

Those negotiations went smoothly over the past two weeks and a lot of difficulties have been ironed out. On that front and in that strand of the talks, it is positive in terms of the all-island economy and the Border issue. However, of great significance, as Deputy Mattie McGrath stated, are the implications of the UK-EU future trading relationship, which will be a major challenge for us and which will have implications for fisheries, for the agrifood business, in particular, for the west of Ireland and for the Border counties if we end up in the next week or so with no deal.

It would appear appropriate, in light of what the Taoiseach said and what the Members have raised, that the Business Committee would look at setting additional time aside next week for the debates referred to. Can I take it, therefore, that Tuesday's business is now-----

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. Perhaps a Friday sitting might be necessary. We have only two more sitting weeks before Christmas and we need to deal with this very urgent situation.

I will be in Brussels on Friday.

Is Tuesday's business agreed? Agreed. We are generally agreed in principle that next week we will provide additional time if necessary. Are Wednesday's proposals agreed to?

Not agreed. On Monday on national radio, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage stated that no one has been turned away from emergency accommodation. This is not the case. I have asked for time to be set aside to debate the issue of homelessness in the Chamber. The Chief Whip has indicated that this can be done. I seek time to discuss this as a matter of urgency because people slept rough in tents and doorways last night and will do so again tonight and on an ongoing basis. These people are being refused access to emergency accommodation. This matter needs to be addressed. There seems to be confusion in government in respect of this matter, particularly on the basis of the comments made by the Minister and the Tánaiste. I ask for time to be set aside for a debate.

I concur with the Deputy. I have had instances in Cork where people have been turned away although they have declared themselves homeless. This was because they travelled from outside the county. The Minister said that no one is being turned away but that is not what we are hearing. We hear how people are homeless and sleeping in doorways. Emergency action is needed.

The Minister is adamant that no one should be turned away. He is of the view that there is capacity and that no one should be turned away just because they are from one district and have moved to another district, particularly during the Christmas period. There is no confusion on the Minister's part. He is very well up to speed on the homelessness issue and is in constant contact with all of the non-governmental organisations involved in the area of homelessness. He is very determined that no door should be closed to any homeless person.

I am looking for time for a debate on this. If the Government issued written instructions to local authorities telling them not to use local connection rules to deny people access to emergency accommodation, which is well within the powers of the Government, this issue would be resolved.

The Minister either has written or is writing to every local authority-----

He is doing that.

-----to ensure that local connection criteria are not a barrier to people accessing services. The Minister has said that nobody who needs shelter this winter should be left without it because of bureaucratic hurdles.

Is Wednesday's business agreed? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with Thursday's business agreed to? Agreed. On promised legislation, 20 Deputies have already indicated.

Yesterday, I launched Sinn Féin's proposals on dealing with household debt. Ahead of that, I reread some of the life stories shared with me as part of our campaign to highlight the issue of household debt. In one case, a person said the children were suffering. That person cannot sleep and the children are not let out to play for fear someone will come to knock on the door about a debt. Another person states those in the household are on the State pension and their electricity and fuel consumption increased due to illness and being at home all of the time. This person said they were better off dead than facing another winter in lockdown. They cannot get loans from banks and are reliant on moneylenders who charge ridiculous rates. These are two examples of the more than 300 people who shared their stories with me.

In 2018, a Sinn Féin Bill passed Second Stage in the House to cap the interest rates charged by moneylenders, some of whom charge up to 288% interest.

They are lending to families who are living below the poverty line, families who are forced to choose between food and fuel or meeting their payments.

I am asking the Taoiseach, as we face into what will be the toughest Christmas for so many families, to listen to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and to lone-parent organisations such as SPARK and One Family, which are at the coal face, calling for the Government to take action on growing household debts. Will he consider these proposals? Will he ensure this legislation to cap interest rates for moneylenders is progressed very quickly in the new year?

The key point, where families are in these situations, is that we provide services so they do not have to go to moneylenders, and provide alternative mechanisms such as MABS, utilising credit unions and our social protection services to eliminate the necessity at all to be going to moneylenders. We do this also through some of the initiatives that were brought in in the recent budget, through social protection in respect of school meals, for example, enhancing supports for lone parents, particularly in support of their children, and in terms of child dependent allowances. Very targeted measures were taken in the budget with a view to supporting the families most in need. In my view, all State institutions and agencies, and the mechanisms at their disposal, should be used to eliminate this need. We have the firepower to do that, as a State.

Will the Taoiseach confirm to the House that the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out, which will hopefully happen quite soon, will be a public-only campaign? In other words, it will be done by public bodies and while they can bring in private bodies to help them, it will all be under the auspices of the State, and there will not be, in tandem, the possibility whereby private organisations that can afford to do so could vaccinate separate from a national programme. Can he confirm we are in a position, as regards procurement in this State, to roll out the vaccine once we get it or, in other words, that we will have all the facilities and raw materials?

It will have to be under the aegis of the State and the authority of the State because, first, the allocation to various vulnerable groupings is key, and that would be jeopardised if people were going off, doing their own thing. As to the national procurement of the vaccine, the State is procuring the vaccine, in the first instance, as part of the European procurement initiative and, therefore, we want to make sure we have data records of its administration so we can monitor its uptake and its effectiveness, and evaluate it.

Plans for a strategic housing development and apartment blocks at Bessborough mother and baby institution have been lodged. More than 900 children died while in the care of nuns at Bessborough and the burial place of more than 800 of those children is still unknown. The proposed development is to be built on an area that has been documented as a children's burial ground. Needless to say, this simply cannot go ahead. The State has a history of facilitating the worst kinds of abuse and a very recent history of unnecessarily compounding the suffering caused by that abuse. The Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance wants the planning applications withdrawn pending further investigation. Will the Taoiseach intervene immediately to ensure this?

On the same issue, MWB Two Limited is proposing the construction of 246 units. I have been talking to survivors and supporters who are very concerned there will be no proper investigation and that nothing will commence now. They are not against the development but it is a fact they have not been given a spare chance on this. They are asking whether An Bord Pleanála can defer the application. I welcome that the Minister has committed to publishing the sixth and final report on the week of 11 January next year. Could this be suspended until we see what is actually in the final report? That would give fairness to both the developers and survivors.

I know the Minister, Deputy Roderic O'Gorman, has met with the survivors in this case. I met with the survivors as well and the campaign group around Bessborough prior to this planning application going in, and my office has been in contact with them subsequent to the planning application going in. Obviously, it is a matter for An Bord Pleanála to decide on the application.

However, it seems to me that the application is close to, if not on, the burial site itself, which is unacceptable. One cannot be building on a burial site. Initially, the survivors were anxious that it would be preserved as a burial site, which to me was a reasonable position to put forward. This relates to the Bessborough mother and baby home. There are other issues also. Given the low-lying nature of the land and its proximity to the shore, I am not clear that it is ideal territory for housing in any event but in terms of the sensitivity of the issue and the degree to which the survivors have approached this in a measured way from the very beginning of our engagement with them, I do not believe this is acceptable at all.

On that basis, will the Taoiseach intervene?

I cannot intervene with a planning authority. I have made my views known but I am not An Bord Pleanála. An Bord Pleanála will exercise its functions in regard to the planning Act.

There is a commitment in the programme for Government to overhaul existing building standards in the construction industry. Related to that is the fact that SOLAS, under the Department of Education, has farmed out the Safe Pass course to independent commercial entities. Since March 2020 and the start of the Covid-19 crisis, the cost of that course has more than doubled from €80 to get a Safe Pass to work on a building site to €160 and then to €200 to do that course. If one does it through a third language, the cost can be as high as €250. That is price-gouging at its best. What does the Taoiseach intend to do about that? It is inhibiting young workers from getting access to jobs on building sites. These would be considered essential workers but as well as that, in the longer term, it is outrageous that the course is farmed out to companies that will use the opportunity to price-gouge. Will the Government take the Safe Pass course back into the Department of Education through the education and training boards, ETBs and SOLAS?

I will pursue that issue to see if what the Deputy is saying stands up. I will check that out. The cost should not be prohibitive to the participants who are anxious to get work and the wherewithal to enable them to work on sites and so on. That sounds prohibitive.

Eighteen years ago last April, I had a meeting with the Taoiseach, then Minister for Health and Children, and Deirdre Gillane, along with Margaret Best, with regard to a no-fault vaccine compensation scheme. The Government has decided to introduce indemnity for the five vaccine companies that are coming forward with a Covid-19 vaccine. I ask the Taoiseach when we will see a no-fault compensation scheme introduced here. We are one of the few countries in Europe now where children and families have to go to court and prove beyond reasonable doubt that the vaccine they took has had an impact on them, yet we still will not introduce a compensation scheme here. If we are going to give medical indemnity to the vaccine companies, why are we forcing families to go to the courts to get their rights and the compensation that they need?

I call Deputy Mattie McGrath on the same matter.

I note also that the Government has indemnified all these big pharmaceutical companies. I know of people in my constituency, as I am sure do other Members, if they are honest, who have been affected by vaccines. I know that many young children in constituencies were affected by the human papillomavirus, HPV, vaccine and they had to fight all the way through the courts to get compensation. Why will the Taoiseach not give them some kind of indemnity or supports? We will have a debate about this Covid-19 vaccine but people are frightened for their lives because they have seen what happened in terms of a list of vaccines over the years and the damage and trauma caused to families, as well as the cost. They were pushed aside by the State while the big pharmaceutical companies walked off into the sunset. Why do those companies have to be indemnified? They have the money and the power. The families do not have the money, power or the wherewithal but they have a very sick child or other family member as a result of taking a vaccine and they have tried to prove that at a huge cost. Why will the Taoiseach not indemnify those families?

Let us get the context clear here. The first point is that we are dealing with a virus that has killed people all over the world, and it continues to kill people.

Approximately 1.5 million people have died globally as a result of Covid-19. Governments themselves do not produce vaccines or medicines. There are no state pharmaceutical factories anywhere that I am aware of. Some states may have them but there may be dubious issues around that too. In this case, there has been a strong collaboration between Governments, whether the United States Government or the European Union, collectively, working with pharmaceutical companies with a view to researching, producing and developing a vaccine quickly relative to what would have happened in the past. It uses existing technologies developed over the years in many instances but parts of that package include pre-purchasing, to enable the financial wherewithal to fund the upfront costs of developing a vaccine, as well as the indemnity, which was important in making sure that we could go all-out to get this vaccine developed and procured. That is the context. On Deputy Naughten's point, the Government is working on a no-fault compensation scheme. As the Deputy is aware, a working group had been established for that. We are committed to bringing one in.

During Leaders' Questions a few weeks ago, I raised the judgment given on 31 July, which set at naught the policy of the Government on trawlers over a certain length fishing in the six mile waters. The Taoiseach was to get back to me about that and nothing has happened. I do not know if the Government has appealed that decision. If it has not, what steps are being taken? As we speak, the trawlers are in Galway Bay, taking sprat. An important part of the policy was a transition phase for sprat to phase out the fishing over two years, because it is not sustainable to continue fishing sprat in the manner that these big trawlers are doing it. If the Government is going ahead with an appeal, what is the position regarding the policy where the Government introduced a certain tonnage over a two-year transition period? I do not expect the Taoiseach to have all the answers but it is an important issue and it is unsustainable. As we speak, the sprat are being removed in an unsustainable manner and we are in a vacuum with no Government policy.

I apologise. I will come back to the Deputy quickly with an updated position on it. I accept the seriousness of the matter.

The expiry dates of many driving licences were extended during Covid, so if a driving licence originally expired during August this year, the expiry date was extended to December. These licences are now up for renewal. There is chaos trying to get a date to renew these appointments, as they are booked in advance. Elderly drivers and those with underlying health conditions would prefer not to have to travel to the National Driver Licence Service, NDLS, centres from places such as Cahirsiveen and Lauragh all the way to Tralee to renew their licence. There was previously an option to renew by post but this is now posing a difficulty because people are being advised to go online. Many of these people do not have a public services card and are not able to use the Internet. Since they have underlying problems, they ask that they be allowed to post in their applications. Moreover, there needs to be enough people there to deal with them.

I will talk to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. I do not know if the Deputy raised the issue with him or not. They share many similar views.

It is hard to find him.

I know the Deputy and the Minister share similar views on many issues.

The Taoiseach is mistaken about that.

The visiting restrictions on nursing homes and community hospitals during the Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant negative effect on the psychological well-being of many residents. I fully understand the need for visiting restrictions to keep this elderly sector of our community safe during Covid but many residents have suffered psychologically. I welcome the new position where nursing home and community hospital residents can have one visit per week but it is far less than many residents would normally have. Nursing Homes Ireland has asked that when the Covid vaccine is rolled out, nursing home residents and staff should be prioritised for vaccination. They have also requested that one visitor for each resident should receive a priority vaccination to increase the number of safe visits to nursing home residents. Will the Government consider including one visitor per patient for priority vaccination?

The allocation strategy was announced by the Government today. It is clear that residents of nursing homes will be first to be vaccinated, along with the healthcare workers. That is the sequence which we propose to follow. As I said earlier in the House, there will be many different proposals from different Deputies as to who should be accommodated before somebody else. We need to go with the public health advice on this and with those who have been involved in previous immunisation campaigns to get this right for the entire population. I accept the point on how difficult it has been for all concerned during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Student nurses should be paid, particularly when they do essential necessary work and at a point in time when there are unable to work in other health settings. Now that the Government has made its decision, I welcome that some can avail of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. I also welcome that there will be a review of allowances. Third year nursing and midwifery students in the Dundalk Institute of Technology, DkIT, brought this to my attention. Would it be possible for this review as it relates to allowances to be fast-tracked? The payment could be front-loaded and paid upfront to ease some of the financial hardship that they are dealing with.

As I said earlier, the allowances review will be completed by the end of December. The intention then is to act very quickly on that. The pandemic unemployment payment decision was made between the Minister for Health and the Minister for Social Protection and will be available to student nurses who cannot partake in normal part-time work because of Covid-19. That is where it things are at the moment but we are committed to protect the degree programme itself.

Can the payment be made upfront?

As I said, we are looking-----

In order that the allowance could be paid faster.

I wish to raise with the Taoiseach ear, nose and throat, ENT, services for children and what is a wholly inadequate number of paediatric ENT consultants covering significant catchment areas. Consequently, we have lengthy waiting periods for children who need access to a service through the public system. It is my understanding that there is little or no ENT service locally in Cavan and Monaghan. Children, therefore, suffering with problems are totally dependent on consultants within Temple Street Children’s University Hospital. Even at that, there are currently only two full-time and two half-time paediatric ENT consultants in Temple Street hospital and those consultants are having their times split between the Mater hospital and Temple Street, as they deal with complex needs and very sick children. I ask the Taoiseach today whether he, together with the Minister for Health, will ensure that we redouble our efforts to get an increase of consultants within the service to reduce the waiting times for these very sick children.

I certainly will pursue that issue with the Minister for Health, who is concerned about waiting lists for children in general, and in particular, for the types of specialised services that the Deputy has referred to.

It is great to see that the GAA is playing minor and under-20 championships. It makes complete sense and it is good for everybody. The GAA was given this exemption following contact it made with the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media and this exemption should be extended to soccer because the under-19 League of Ireland leads to progression to the UEFA youth league. It is very unfair on the soccer community, who are being treated like second-class citizens. There appears to be one door to the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media for the GAA and one door for all the other sports. Can the Taoiseach ensure that all codes of sport are treated equally and that under-age soccer is allowed to go ahead?

I have raised this issue already in the Dáil and many Deputies have been contacted by different soccer leagues. I was contacted by the midlands schoolboys and schoolgirls soccer league. Its members are very concerned and the children are finding it very difficult because they cannot play their matches. This restriction is completely unfair because, as has been pointed out, it is not affecting the GAA. I support all sports and believe this restriction should be lifted. There is much talk about children’s mental health and well-being and in the interests of fairness, this restriction needs to be lifted as soon as possible.

My own club, Tralee Dynamos, have continued with its under-13 leagues but all of the junior leagues have been cancelled. Can the Taoiseach consider extending this exemption? There are also some outdoor activities, such as the fun runs and park runs that will be coming up at Christmas. Perhaps these might be given an exemption for smaller numbers.

There we go. One restriction lifted leads to another and then to another and it goes on and on. In the first instance, the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media is not discriminatory in respect of anybody. I speak as someone who did not achieve much in sport but enjoyed it immensely. I have an under-15 cup medal with Togher AFC, which I cherish very much. No less a great hurler than Ger Cunningham was in goal on the same day. From that perspective-----

The Taoiseach is showing his age.

Yes, Deputy Kelly, I understand. There will be a return volley at some stage.

We will examine that issue and the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media has raised these anomalies, which occur from time to time. The essential point, however, between here and Christmas is that we want to minimise the level of activities generally because we want to keep the virus down in order that people can have a safe and meaningful Christmas. We asked the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media to engage with all of the organisations for the new year to see how we would manage this but much will depend on where the numbers are with the virus.

Last evening, the number was 242. We must remember that we are starting at a much higher level of incidence within the community now than we were dealing with during the summer time, when we were looking at five to ten cases a day. Yesterday evening, it was 242 and the day before that it was 300. Between now and Christmas is approximately two weeks and we will see what we can do on that.

Six Deputies have not been reached on promised legislation and will be given priority tomorrow.