Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

We turn now to Questions on Promised Legislation. There is one minute for each question, and I call Deputy McDonald.

Children with special educational needs were among those who suffered most during the first lockdown. Despite the best efforts of everyone, including staff, parents and the children and young people themselves, there was regression. The disruption to routine and lack of social contact is very traumatic for them. The parents of children with special educational needs were distraught and disappointed with the Government's failure to plan for the closure of schools because that led to there being no plan for their children's education. Everybody wants to see children back at school, especially those children and young people with additional needs.

That meant that the Government needed to plan and to consult with workers and all other stakeholders.

Unfortunately, that was not done and it has led to big disappointment. Remote learning does not work for many children with additional needs. They need in-school support. Will the Taoiseach direct the Minister to negotiate with all stakeholders and ensure that service is delivered to these children and young people at the earliest possible date?

It was in response to many contributions in this House during the first lockdown and in discussing the impact of that lockdown on children with special needs that the Government bought forward a proposal to allow special needs children to come back to their special schools or special classes in mainstream schools. Indeed, we facilitated the consultation between the assistant national director for public health, Dr. Kevin Kelleher, and the consultant Dr. Abbey Collins in relation to that proposal. Their unequivocal view was that it would be safe to do so, even taking cognisance of the new variant. That said, I understand the genuine fear out there in relation to this and I assure the Deputy that the Minister is engaging with all the partners in education with a view to facilitating the needs of children with special needs.

On the mother and baby homes report, I have expressed the concern that today we should not necessarily be issuing a State apology. We should have agreed a date with the survivors and their organisation. I have an added concern now in relation to how we will deal with information and tracing legislation to help the survivors and their families. The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, said this morning that it would be the end of the year before we would look at this. This is deeply concerning. This is absolute priority legislation for all these families. There is a debate whether we need legislation at all, but I will leave that aside. We can bring in emergency legislation for Covid and we brought in emergency legislation in the past to bail out the banks. Given what has transpired for these people, surely the women, their families, their children and everyone deserves this legislation to be brought forward rapidly in the coming weeks.

I do not disagree with the Deputy on the need for this legislation. It is essential. There was considerable debate in the last Dáil concerning a legislative template around access to information and tracing. It proved impossible to get consensus in the House at the time to get that legislation passed. The Government has looked at this afresh and the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, as he said this morning, is taking a different approach to this. Government is of the view we need to stretch this to ensure access to information for all involved.

On the timeframe, we want to work with Members of the House and other parties in the House. We will do everything we can at Government level, with the Attorney General's and other advice. The Minister and his Department are taking on specialist advice in relation to GDPR, for example. I take the Deputy's point about the application of GDPR in terms of access to personal information and data. We will do everything we can to accelerate that.

The front page of today's Irish Examiner lists the 923 children who died in Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork. The burial place of only 64 children has been established. The commission has found that some of the 859 children who are unaccounted for are probably buried on the grounds. Unbelievably, there are planning applications for development on this site. I have raised this with the Taoiseach before and, needless to say, it cannot be allowed to go ahead. The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, announced legislation for the dignified exhumation of the children in the mass grave at Tuam. Will the Government introduce similar legislation for Bessborough? Can the Taoiseach assure people that these developments cannot go ahead?

I empathise with what the Deputy has said. I spoke to one of the representative organisations some time ago on the Bessborough situation. Their main objective was that the burial site would be preserved. There was a view that people can identify.

I agree that there first of all needs to be an examination and a proper and robust identification of the burial sites of all the children. I would have deep concerns about construction going ahead in the absence of that having been established and measures taken to protect such burial sites. It is perhaps premature at this stage to talk about legislation. However, the Bill that the Minister is bringing through in respect of Tuam can be applied-----

We need legislation for this.

No. I am saying that the legislation that he is introducing in respect of Tuam can be applied to other sites as well.

It should be done as a matter of urgency.

I wish to convey my condolences to the family of George Nkencho, who was shot dead on 30 December. The European Court of Human Rights has decreed that the death of any person at the hands of police requires independent official investigation. In this case, there needs to be an independent public inquiry that fully involves the family and the community. Regardless of the serious issues that led to George Nkencho being pursued, it is a matter of the utmost gravity when a young person is shot on his doorstep, not once, but six times and so very quickly after being pursued. Will the Taoiseach outline the training gardaí have been given for dealing with people with mental health issues? Will he outline how officers relate to young people in minority communities - African, Muslim, Traveller and so on? Racists and the far right are trying to exploit this tragedy and stir up division in the diverse community of Blanchardstown by spreading vile lies on social media, etc. They cannot and will not be allowed to divide ordinary people on this issue.

First, I want to sympathise with the family of George Nkencho on his very sad passing. This is a grave situation that merits investigation. The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, will carry out an independent examination of this matter and it is important that we not prejudice the outcome of a fair and independent investigation.

The Garda works extremely hard to develop community relations and its efforts have been very effective in many communities. Gardaí work in very difficult contexts as well and that has to be acknowledged. The reason for GSOC's establishment was to create an independent arm of investigation into very grave incidents of this kind. In terms of community relations generally, the Garda has a very progressive policy. The Garda Commissioner articulated that to me recently.

I call Deputy Denis Naughten.

I am not Deputy Denis Naughten.

My apologies. I meant Deputy Grealish.

Over the past week, I have been contacted by many parents of children with severe disabilities because those children being at home and have no learning supports. The ongoing struggles faced by these families have been well documented over the past week, including learning loss, significant behavioural issues and serious regression. Will the Taoiseach outline the steps that are being taken by the Government to address outstanding issues in order to ensure that the relevant schools will be reopened? Will the staff at these schools be vaccinated as a matter of urgency so that the children can return to school as soon as possible? Will the Taoiseach ask the Minister for Education to have a Zoom meeting with the parents' representatives at Rosedale School in Galway, Ms Angelina Hynes and Mr. Davy Walsh, to hear at first hand about the difficulties they are experiencing as a result of the prolonged school closures?

I appreciate the Deputy's concerns in respect of children with special needs and additional needs. The Minister is engaging with all of the partners in respect of this issue with a view to facilitating a return in a safe manner. Those discussions and that engagement are ongoing. I acknowledge the enormous challenges for the families involved, most importantly the children. I will ask the Minister if she is in a position to communicate with the school community of Rosedale. I read some of the comments. Indeed, I saw them on the "Six One" news, if I am not mistaken. I thought it was a very interesting insight and presentation given by the principal in relation to her sense of her capacity and the capacity of the school to facilitate the return of the children. The Minister is actively engaged in this and I will ask her engage with them.

I wish to return to the issue of St. Brigid's District Hospital in Carrick-on-Suir, which the Taoiseach and his Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and Minister of State, Deputy Butler, unceremoniously decided to close. The Taoiseach gave a point blank refusal to meet Mr. Kieran Bourke, a councillor on Tipperary County Council, and activists like Ms Catherine Foley, who was to push a bed to Dublin today but, due to the 5 km rule, has had to desist. They want to know what is defective in the hospital. HIQA reports stated that it was fit for Covid step-down purposes during the first lockdown. Will it now be used for Covid? Will the repair works necessary to address whatever structural defects it is claimed exist be considered? The HIQA report was not quite clear about what was wrong with the hospital. There is little wrong with it that I can see. It is a fabulous institution. We listened to the testimonies of families over Christmas about how their loved ones were cared for and died there with dignity. Will the Taoiseach meet Councillor Bourke, his colleagues, activists in Carrick-on-Suir and the impeccable medical staff at the facility? Closing the hospital is a shocking indictment on the Government, particularly during Covid.

The Government does not decide to close any institution in that manner.

Yes, the HSE takes operational decisions. My understanding was that the HSE had a plan to invest significantly in St. Brigid's with additional and different services being applied there and that, initially, this met with some positive responses, but people-----

Window dressing.

No, that is my understanding. People have reflected on that and have different perspectives on it. I do not have any difficulty engaging with people in relation to it, but we cannot ignore HIQA reports either in respect of particular institutions or facilities. I will engage again with the HSE in respect of the matter.

The Government is rightly facing a wave of upset and anger from the survivors and victims of the mother and baby homes on the back of the publication of the commission's report and the Government's handling of it. We in the Opposition warned the Government of this back in October when the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, rammed the commission of investigation records legislation through the Dáil in a single day. We now see that subject access requests for personal data are still being refused by the commission contrary to the Attorney General's advice that GDPR be applied, a point the Government only recognised after the legislation was passed. Will the Taoiseach commit to amending section 6 of the Commission of Investigation (Mother and Baby Homes and Certain Related Matters) Records, and Another Matter, Act 2020 to explicitly state the pre-eminence of GDPR and the enabling legislation over domestic legislation?

That legislation had to be introduced in order to protect, save and preserve the records. The Minister's bona fides were absolutely correct on that occasion, and that should be acknowledged. If the Deputy reads the sixth interim report of the commission, it makes it very clear that the legislation was both urgent and necessary.

I will ask the Minister to come back to the Deputy on the specific point he raised in terms of the application of GDPR and access to information. As I said earlier, we believe in people's right to access information.

Last night in my constituency, a community came under attack from youths lighting fires and engaging in antisocial behaviour. In part, the reason for this is derelict council properties that have been allowed to lie idle for years. There are a number of problems. First, thousands of families in cork are crying out to be housed. Second, they are looking at houses that are lying idle. Those houses are a magnet for young people, gangs, antisocial behaviour and criminality. These people are terrifying and terrorising communities. I have asked the Minister to give local authorities complete authority to do up these houses instead of leaving them lie idle for years, to cut out the red tape and bureaucracy in Dublin and to let Cork City Council work on this matter. Will the Taoiseach support my call and ask the Minister to allow this?

The Derelict Sites Act 1990 is in place and the local authority should intervene. The Deputy would have been a very active member of the local authority up to quite recently when he was successfully elected to this House in the general election that took place nearly a year ago now.

The Deputy knows well that the local authority can and has the wherewithal to intervene, particularly in the context of derelict sites and vacant properties. I accept his point that vacant properties are a magnet for antisocial activity and behaviour and it is not acceptable. I do not know whether the Deputy has been in touch with the local authority in respect of this. I will, however, make the Minister aware of the fact he raised the issue today.

As we all know, the coronavirus has wrecked our country. People have lost their lives, jobs and businesses and the whole country has been totally disrupted. This virus was and is reported to have originated in Wuhan in China. The WHO, to which our Government or the previous Government gave €9.5 million, sought to go into Wuhan before the end of last year and was refused. It was told it would not be let in until, perhaps, 31 January or perhaps not even then.

What investigations have taken place or what has the Taoiseach asked the WHO about what happened? Has the Government spoken to the United Nations? We are a sovereign country that has been impacted by this virus in a dreadful way, more so than if we had been bombed like they were in Pearl Harbour. Will the Taoiseach investigate what has happened? It is already being said now that another virus is originating there, that is, pneumonia. Is the Taoiseach going to let this go on without making any attempt to find out what has happened or what they did to the whole world?

I believe in the World Health Organization. It is an essential body that deserves the support of all the member states of the United Nations. It is regrettable that it has been refused entry into Wuhan. A team of investigators was due to go in there to try to identify the source and so on of Covid-19, not in a blaming sort of scenario but rather to try to understand fully where the virus originated and how it spread. I believe that is necessary and I hope that situation can be resolved. The World Health Organization plays an extraordinarily effective role. It needs more support from member states of the United Nations but it plays an extraordinary role in terms of the public health arena. It has been involved in many outbreaks of various diseases across the globe and has helped many vulnerable countries and communities and continues to support them.

Once again and for the umpteenth time, I wish to raise funding for the port access northern cross route in Drogheda. I understand that funding announcements for projects under the local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF, are imminent. This is the third time Louth County Council has made an application for funding. For 15 long years, we have waited for this funding. It is vital infrastructure to allow for the development of Drogheda and for the development of up to approximately 5,000 homes under the plan, something the Taoiseach spoke about earlier.

In February 2019, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, was in Drogheda canvassing for the local elections and in that time, he made a public call that the road should be built. Now that he is in charge, if that call was genuine will he follow through and deliver the funding for the port access northern crossing? This time around, after 15 long years of waiting and the third application, will the Taoiseach ensure that we get the funding for the port access northern crossing in this round of funding?

Obviously, I cannot pre-empt the allocation or distribution of this particular round of funding. That matter is being considered by the Minister in consultation with other Departments. Obviously, as the Deputy said and has been articulated by others, the case is a significant issue that needs resolution. I will certainly raise the Deputy's concerns with the Minister.

The Irish fishing industry was worth €1.2 billion prior to the Brexit trade deal and created 16,000 jobs scattered around coastal communities. The Irish fishing industry cut 60% of its mackerel in UK waters but the new negotiated deal means we will be reduced to approximately 13%. This deal is completely negative for Ireland. For instance, Belgium and Spain will lose less than 1,000 tonnes per annum in the pelagic sector, while Ireland will lose a staggering 23,496 tonnes. Surely, this shows the Irish Government was asleep at the wheel during recent negotiations. The Taoiseach said the deal, after it was signed, would impact negatively on our fishing industry, while President Macron announced the deal done by Mr. Michel Barnier was good for French fishermen. What exactly is the deal that was done with regard to Irish fishing? For the sake of Irish fishing industry and the thousands of rural coastal jobs, please do not announce another decommissioning scheme as every Irish fisherman wants to fish the waters like they always have.

One of the first meetings I had this year was with representative bodies of the fishing industry and the fishing co-operatives. We always knew Brexit was going to have a negative impact on our fishing industry, principally because of the high percentages, particularly of the pelagic stock, being fished in British waters and we were particularly concerned about our mackerel and prawn stocks and others. We have mitigated what could have been a far worse impact and because of our close proximity to the UK and the fact we fish so much in British waters, the impact has been more negative for us. The challenge now is to see if we can ameliorate that but also, more importantly, if can we do everything we possibly can to support the fishing industry and those involved in the fishing sector from primary right through the entire production sector, as well as the communities the fishing industry serves, in terms of economic developments and supports.

Significant amounts of money have been seized by the Criminal Assets Bureau, CAB, over the years. The last figure I have since its inception in 1996 is €150 million. I come from an area in Dublin called north Clondalkin that has been disproportionately affected by drug use and drug dealing over the years. I have seen whole families being wiped out. Some of these have been relatives, neighbours and friends of mine over the years.

The money seized by CAB originates from areas like my own in north Clondalkin. Will the Taoiseach make sure the money CAB seizes goes back into providing services in the areas that are most affected by this scourge on society?

I thank the Deputy for his remarks. I accept the impact of the activities by those who deal in illicit drugs and criminal activity on his community, which CAB has struck at. It is a scourge on our society and on communities up and down the country. We need to have a systemic approach to the allocation of funding to communities that suffer from such activities. By that I mean through the various Departments, we should target resources in a proactive and co-ordinated way through the Exchequer, not necessarily coming from CAB, which will go back in, but through education and dealing with young people and early school leavers in terms of psychological supports and whole social supports, a bit like the RAPID areas of yesteryear. We should restore that type of collective co-ordinated approach on the ground, a bit like the initiative which has been highly effective in the north inner city. We need to take that approach more systematically across the country.

Many students have been in contact with me ahead of the 2021-22 academic year, which I know sounds like a lifetime away. As the Taoiseach will be aware, however, for those receiving it, the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grant will be based on 2020 income. The Covid-19 payment, which a lot of students received and continue to receive, will play havoc with the grants next year. Now is the time to address this issue.

The new SUSI scheme will issue from the Department in February 2021 before SUSI opens for new applications and renewals in April 2021. Clearly, it is my view that the Covid-19 payment should not be assessed against these students. Many reforms are required in SUSI but regarding the pandemic unemployment payments, PUP, as a reckonable income is unfair, however.

Perhaps the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, will also address this issue. It should not be taken into account because of the pandemic and the crisis we are in. It would only be right and fair to make sure it would not be taken into account.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I will discuss this further with the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Government will give broader consideration to it but I am conscious that the SUSI scheme is grounded in legislation and has parameters within which it must operate. I will revert to the Deputy.

The Taoiseach will recall that in 2019, the Sea-Fisheries (Amendment) Act came through the Houses and at that time, the Government stated that its purpose was to reinstate the principle of voisinage to allow Irish fishers, no matter where they were resident on the island of Ireland, to fish and sell their produce on this island. Today's date is 13 January and for 13 days, Irish fishermen with a licence in the North of Ireland are being prevented from landing their fish in harbours and piers across the State, with the exception of Killybegs and Castletownbere. In counties such as Donegal, this means that the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority is literally at harbours preventing Irish fishermen from landing into those harbours. Worse than that, it is going to co-operatives and producers and getting rid of their lobsters and crabs. It is an appalling situation. The Taoiseach has it in his power to designate more piers and harbours across the State by this Friday and to reinstate the fishing rights of these fishers and their right to supply to this island.

The Deputy raises a serious and important issue because from 1 January, the United Kingdom has become a third country and therefore, it is subject to illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing legislation under the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission requirements. Castletownbere and Killybegs are the Irish ports designated for third country landings of fish for those purposes. That includes Northern Ireland UK vessels. As we know and as the Deputy has said, UK fishing vessels, including Northern Ireland vessels, have had a pattern of landing at many Irish ports prior to the UK leaving the European Union. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine has requested the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority to review the issue in terms of additional resources that will be required in the event of further designations and work is being done on the issue. There are practical issues involved in the designation of further ports but I take the overall point that the Deputy has made.

That concludes questions on promised legislation. Five Deputies were not reached, including Deputies Connolly, O'Donnell, Ó Cathasaigh, McAuliffe and Quinlivan and they will be given priority tomorrow.