Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

I appreciate that.

It is regrettable that the Tánaiste has used the pandemic to score cheap political points. The Tánaiste knows more than most that Sinn Féin actually proposed a travel ban to the Executive and that the DUP, UUP and the Alliance Party voted that down. This is regrettable given the sacrifices and the suffering that so many people are going through at this point in time, not to mention the loss of life that we have seen increase in the last number of days.

The issue I wish to raise with the Tánaiste today is that yesterday, the Central Bank found that the average interest rate on mortgages here is almost 2.8%. This is the highest in the EU and over twice the European average. First-time mortgage buyers are now paying €2,000 on average more in interest each year than the European mortgage holder. They pay €60,000 more back to the bank over the lifetime of the loan. That is the scale of the rip-off. I will ask the Tánaiste three questions. First, what policy actions will the Government take to respond to this outrage?

Second, the withdrawal of Ulster Bank from the market risks raising these interest rates even further, as the deputy governor of the Central Bank confirmed to me in correspondence last month. What steps is the Government taking with regard to Ulster Bank? Third, on 2 December the European regulator reactivated guidelines-----

The Deputy is way over time.

-----for Covid payment breaks. The Government has not even asked the banks to bring forward these payment breaks. Can the Tánaiste explain to hard-pressed customers why the Government will not ask the banks to instigate these payment breaks?

A Theachta, ní mór dúinn a bheith féaráilte do gach duine. Mar sin, cloí leis an srian ama más é do thoil é.

I am surprised at how quickly the Deputy becomes sanctimonious. He is forever using Covid to score political points. He did exactly that in his contribution only half an hour ago and made no mention of the sad deaths of at least 50 people yesterday. Sinn Féin beats the band when it comes to using Covid to score political points, but it will not do the two things it should do to help. The first is to convince the Northern Ireland Executive to introduce the same rules as ours in respect of international travel. If its efforts in that regard fail, fair enough, but Sinn Féin should continue to try. There is no point demanding an all-Ireland strategy if the party does not do the one thing it could do to make it happen. Second, Sinn Féin must fully co-operate with the inquiry into Bobby Storey's funeral. The First Minister has said that the latter undermined confidence in public health in Northern Ireland and, indeed, the deputy First Minister, Ms O'Neill, has said the same. We have yet to hear from Deputy Doherty, who attended that event, whether he has been interviewed by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI, or how that investigation is going.

Regarding the issues the Deputy raised about the banks, I will let the Minister for Finance reply to him on them.

The Tánaiste is the Minister with responsibility.

I am not. The Minister for Finance has responsibility.

The Tánaiste has responsibility.

Almost four minutes have been taken up with the first question. This is not acceptable. I am moving on. There is a minute for each Deputy. If questions can be posed and answered, that would be helpful.

I speak for many people when I say that the point-scoring between Sinn Féin and Fine Gael is getting quite tedious.

I have a question about Beacon Hospital. It is reported in the Irish Independent today that the staff in the privately-owned Beacon Hospital were vaccinated yesterday. This is the same hospital that refused to sign up to the deal with the HSE to make even 30% of its beds available to the public health system. Dr. Jack Lambert said the following this morning:

Mater has vaccinated less than 50% of those who need it because we have not been given enough vaccine; who made those decisions? No transparency in who made these decisions. Poor communication. COVID vaccine roll out is critical; we need transparency, a very detailed plan.

Why are the vaccinations happening in a private hospital that will not row in behind the national effort, meagre and all as it is? Why are people in the Mater hospital not getting the vaccine, as outlined by Dr. Lambert?

I do not have any information on the vaccine programme, either in the Mater or in Beacon Hospital. I will ask the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to reply to the Deputy, if he can.

Given the events that took place in the Chamber yesterday, today might be a good day to highlight promises in previous State apologies that are as yet unfulfilled. I refer in particular to the apology to survivors of Magdalen laundries in 2013 and the recommendations from Mr. Justice Quirke's commission that have yet to be implemented. Previously, I raised recommendation 6 relating to memorialisation, but today I wish to highlight recommendation 1, which relates to full medical cards under the Health (Amendment) Act 1996 - HAA cards - that have yet to be delivered to the survivors of Magdalen laundries. I and many other activists, who have worked on this for longer than I have, suggest that the HAA medical card should be given to all survivors of Ireland's institutional past. What is the Tánaiste's opinion on that? Elizabeth Coppin has taken a case to the UN Committee Against Torture, such is the gravity of the situation. I will be interested to hear the Tánaiste's thoughts.

First, with regard to memorialisation, the Government has taken a decision to develop a national repository for all archives relating to institutions, and I know the Deputy welcomes that. There are different suggestions as to where it should be located but we intend to press ahead with it, not just so people can have access to records but also in order that the records can be studied. We and other countries can learn from that.

With regard to survivors of the Magdalen institutions, they have received an enhanced medical card from the Government. It is not the standard medical card, it is a better one. It is true it is not the same as the HAA card, but there were certain issues with that. One is particularly related to hepatitis. Hepatitis obviously gives rise to a set of needs that are different from the health needs former Magdalen residents would have. Sadly, there were a number of instances where that card was misused and abused in the context of treatments that are not recognised. There were certain issues with that, and the Department of Health can give the Deputy more information on it, but there are good reasons that we did not go ahead with that.

Yesterday, the Government circulated a list of priority legislation for the spring session. There is not a single Bill in that list to deal with workers' rights, despite the massive challenges faced by workers throughout the country. Notable by its absence was any attempt to deal with the Duffy Cahill report. In addition, yesterday the Debenhams workers voted by 91% to reject the proposal from Mr. Kevin Foley to put €3 million into a retraining fund. They are asking the Government and all bodies involved in this, including the trade unions, to press for that €3 million to be put into cash as part payment for a just settlement where their redundancy entitlements have been denied to them.

There is great concern among the Debenhams workers about KPMG's attempts to remove the stock during the pandemic restrictions. It is unacceptable that non-essential work such as stock removal should be carried out. Can the Tánaiste give a guarantee that the Government will transfer that €3 million fund into cash and that KPMG will not be allowed to move the stock?

I obviously cannot make any commitments on behalf of KPMG. It is a court-sponsored liquidation process and the Deputy will appreciate why I cannot intervene.

There will be workers' rights legislation, including legislation on sick pay. We might not have it in this session, but I anticipate we will have it in the first half of the year. I hope I will have the co-operation of the House in getting that legislation passed before the summer recess so we can implement it before the end of the year.

I am aware of the decision of the former Debenhams workers to reject the proposals made by the chairman of the Labour Court. It is their right to do so. The Government has been engaged in this matter for many months. I have met the unions and spoken to the liquidator and Debenhams UK. I have brought in the Workplace Relations Commission and the chairman of the Labour Court. What is on offer is €13 million from the Social Insurance Fund so the former workers get their legal entitlements to redundancy and a further €3 million in training grants. It would be difficult to turn that €3 million in training grants into cash and then tell all the other workers who received statutory redundancy in the past year that they would not get it too.

More than half of the 2,460 people who have died with Covid-19 in the State died in nursing homes. In December, two thirds of the deaths that occurred were due to outbreaks in nursing home and hospital settings. Outbreaks in nursing homes doubled to 52 just last week, while cases of Covid-19 in nursing homes increased by 500%. The latter gave rise to 24 deaths in the past week alone. God rest each of those individuals. Currently, there are 800 staff missing from nursing homes across the sector. The issue is so critical that some nursing homes are texting family members of residents and asking them to come in and help. The people who are most vulnerable to Covid-19 have been the most exposed.

At the start of the pandemic, the then Minister, Deputy Harris, launched the Be On Call for Ireland campaign. Some 70,000 people responded, but only 200 were employed. I have taken dozens of calls from medical professionals who applied but who were never employed. There are many newspaper reports about people who applied but were not employed.

The Deputy is over time.

The Tánaiste touched on this matter earlier, but he did not answer the question. Why has this critical human resource not been used?

The Deputy is absolutely right to raise the issue of nursing homes. In the first and second waves of the infection the majority of deaths that occurred in Ireland as a consequence of Covid-19 involved people who were residents of nursing homes. There has been a similar pattern across the developed world. It is mainly due to fact that the people who are living in nursing homes tend to be elderly and frail in health terms. That is why we have prioritised vaccinating nursing home residents and staff, all of whom will have had or been offered their first dose by next weekend and will have been offered their second dose by the middle of February.

We are putting them first in this regard.

I did not mean to gloss over the question on Be On Call for Ireland, if that is what I did. I am just not up to date on the situation in that regard. I will check it out with the Minister for Health. When I was up to date on it a few months ago, we ran into real issues with it, in that a large number of people volunteered to be available but they were not necessarily qualified or resident in the State.

I thank the Tánaiste.

A lot of them were already working in other parts of the health service, including in nursing homes, and wanted to move to hospitals. I will get the Deputy a better update on it.

The Tánaiste might be playing little games with Sinn Féin, but I want to go back to the banks. When is this Government going to deal with the banks? The Government removed the moratorium and thousands of small businesses and homeowners are now being threatened and intimidated. Many of them are trying to engage with the banks but they can get no clarity on what is going to happen going forward. Some of those who are able to pay want to pay a lesser amount now because of the lack of income.

European interest rates are way lower and the mortgage rates are twice as high here. When is the Government going to deal with the banks? We bailed them out. It is time that they respected the pandemic and the fact that we are all in it together. The banks are in it as well. They have to deal with people sensitively and appropriately and not terrorise them, which is what they are doing. In the middle of a pandemic, they are driving them over the brink with letters, demands for money and a lack of engagement with customers.

I thank the Deputy.

It is time that the banks played their part and that the Government showed some interest in making that happen.

The Government is engaging with the banks all the time. Sometimes the engagement is very robust. I can tell the Deputy that for certain, having been present at some of the meetings. In circumstances where people cannot pay a business loan or a mortgage because of the effect of Covid on their income, mortgage breaks and loan breaks will be available. Other solutions such as interest-only repayments or reduced payments might also be made available. That commitment is there from the banks. It is not a blanket approach but it does apply where somebody genuinely cannot pay as a consequence of his or her income being affected by Covid.

Mortgage rates being higher in Ireland is a separate issue. It is the case that mortgage rates in Ireland are substantially higher than they are in the rest of the EU. They are coming down and they should come down further. We must appreciate that there are two significant differences between Ireland and the rest of the European Union. Bank charges are different. For example, when one sees very low rates in Denmark or Germany, what one does not see is the fact that people are charged in a different way.

We are over time. I thank the Tánaiste.

The higher charge results in a lower interest rate. The second difference is the fact that we in Ireland, for very good reason, make it very hard for a bank to repossess a house and that has an impact on mortgage rates.

We are way over time.

Even the European banks that provide mortgages here add on a premium for that reason.

I ask for the Tánaiste's co-operation. I know it is difficult, but a number of Deputies are waiting to get in, so I urge Members to be brief.

In view of the Tánaiste's earlier comments about responsible comment, I suggest that comparing vitamin D supplements with remdesivir or hydroxychloroquine, in terms of either the generally accepted benefits or potential negative side effects, is irresponsible.

The question I want to ask about promised legislation relates to Eir and complaints to ComReg more generally. When I asked this question before Christmas, the Tánaiste suggested that he hoped to bring legislation to the Cabinet before Christmas and to the floor of the Dáil in February. That legislation is necessary, in particular as Eir's difficulties with mobile telephone coverage continue across west Clare from Inagh to Miltown Malbay. Has the legislation been brought to Cabinet to give the power to ComReg to levy administrative sanctions on telco companies that repeatedly flout their contractual obligations.

On the first point, yes, the heads of the Bill have been brought to Cabinet. That will be provided for in legislation that the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, and I will bring through to increase the powers of the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC. We are going to include in that Bill giving ComReg the power to levy administrative sanctions. We expect the Bill to be published and to go through the Houses in this session. We intend to do that because of a European deadline we have to meet as well.

If I could rephrase my earlier comments, the point I was making was a different one. I am not dismissing the possibility that vitamin D may be beneficial in terms of Covid; what I am saying is that the jury is out. The president of America made recommendations about what medicines people should and should not take, including remdesivir, which by the way, is a recognised licensed medicine for Covid, but it did not turn out to meet its promise.

I thank the Tánaiste.

I do not want to be in that space for giving advice on what medicines people should take.

Tá mé ag bogadh ar aghaidh. I am going back to yesterday's list. The second name on that list is Deputy O'Donnell.

I wish to raise two issues. Could the Tánaiste give an update on the discussions that have taken place between the Ministers, the Department of the Education, the unions and the schools on special needs schools and classes recommencing? It is a major issue on the ground for parents in Limerick and it is something on which he might provide an update.

I note the Government's commitment on the vaccine being prioritised for those other than front-line workers. I refer to GPs and their staff, dentists and their staff and pharmacists as well. Could the Tánaiste raise that with the vaccination task force? In Limerick, there is significant inconsistency in the delivery of the vaccine to GPs, dentists and pharmacists, relative to other areas of the country.

I thank the Deputy.

GPs in Cork have been given their vaccinations but not in Limerick. Dentists in other areas such as Sligo have been given the vaccine. I ask the Tánaiste for a commitment to prioritising those areas.

Deputy Fitzpatrick can come in on this topic.

I am delighted to hear that a fourth vaccine could be available to this country very soon.

The Deputy can speak on the same topic.

A 97-year old woman in Dundalk is being looked after by her six daughters. The family has contacted the GP and I have contacted the HSE. I have her details. She is no burden to the State. Is that the reason she is not entitled to get the vaccine? At 97 years of age, she is entitled to get it.

I cannot hear when Deputies are shouting from the back. What Deputy Fitzpatrick said does not relate to the question. He is further down the list. I call on the Tánaiste to respond.

In response to Deputy O'Donnell, the commitment I can give is that community healthcare workers, GPs, dentists and pharmacists will be included in group 2. I will take it up with the task force next week to make sure that happens. I appreciate that there are going to be differences from one part of the country to the other and from one community healthcare organisation, CHO, to another, but they will be managed in the best possible way.

In response to the question on special educational needs, SEN, the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, is present and she will take it.

I thank Deputy O'Donnell very much for his question. He must have his finger on the pulse, as there is very good news following our discussions with the unions this morning in that there is a shared commitment to reopen all special classes in primary schools, special schools, and classes for children with SEN in mainstream classes from next Thursday, 21 January. This is a positive development. We have logistical issues that we need to sort out, but I thank the education partners and the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, for all the work that has been done to date.

In 2020, more than 7,000 people either going blind or in pain and in need of an operation availed of the cross-Border scheme. On 31 December, this scheme ended, leaving thousands in the Republic who require urgent surgery in the North stranded. Three cross-Border health initiatives were in place prior to 31 December. Cancer patients travelled from Donegal to Derry. Children requiring heart surgery went from Belfast to Dublin. The third group involved cataract patients and others. Legislation was correctly put in place for the survival of the first two initiatives. Why was no legislation put in place to continue the cross-Border scheme for the thousands of people going blind, who are in need of cataract surgery or those in need of hip or knee surgery? The Fine Gael Senator in west Cork said I was scaremongering when I raised concerns that we would not have a cross-Border scheme in place by 1 January. He said there would be. Is there a new cross-border scheme in place?

There are many people like me ringing the cross-border section in Kilkenny and being told it is no longer in place.

I thank the Deputy. The cross-border scheme derived from European law, the cross-border directive. Northern Ireland is no longer in the European Union, unfortunately; that was beyond our control. Therefore, the cross-border directive no longer applies. People may still travel to other EU countries under the cross-border directive.

The Minister for Health has approval from the Cabinet to introduce an administrative scheme, not on a legislative basis, that would be analogous to what was there before, thus allowing people, particularly in Border areas, to continue to avail of healthcare in Northern Ireland and we will reimburse their costs. Particularly at this time, with Covid-19 levels so high, elective procedures have been paused for good reason.

I am really concerned by the number of people who are having their medical cards taken away as we speak. We are at the height of a pandemic and people are being contacted by the HSE, which is taking away those medical cards. Can the Tánaiste please stop this practice?

I know last year there was a moratorium while extensions were given. This year, that has not happened to date. The practice must stop. We know already that medical card thresholds are way too low. People are being hounded out of medical cards and people are being hounded by banks because we will not protect them. If the Tánaiste stopped his obsession with Sinn Féin, perhaps he and his Government could deal with some of these matters.

I am no more obsessed with Sinn Féin than the Deputy is obsessed with berating the Government at every opportunity rather than being constructive. I will certainly take up the matter she raises with the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly. Medical cards need to be reviewed from time to time to confirm that people are still eligible. Special arrangements were brought in during the course of the pandemic and I will certainly inform the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, that the Deputy raised concerns in the Dáil and I will ask him to reply to her directly.

This Government has made a commitment to increase social housing stock. Last month, Sinn Féin councillors voted to delay 19 new-build social homes in Clondalkin by a month. The party's national housing spokesperson said this was because 19 homes were not enough. Locally, however, Sinn Féin was saying the opposite. This week, Sinn Féin councillors proposed to reduce that same plan further from 19 homes to 14. The original plan for this site was 28 social homes, so Sinn Féin wanted a 50% reduction. Sinn Féin's housing strategy locally is very different to what it is saying nationally. Maybe it is not a housing strategy at all but a political strategy. Maybe the Sinn Féin approach to housing is simply to keep the housing crisis on the political agenda. Now we are in level 5, will the Tánaiste confirm that social housing projects across the country will continue during this lockdown?

I can confirm that in level 5 social housing construction can continue because it is necessary. It is among the exceptions made for construction. On the question of Sinn Féin's housing policy, one could probably say Sinn Féin is in favour of housing in theory but not in practice. It consistently votes against it when it has the opportunity. This Government and the previous Government, at least for the past couple of years, has produced more social housing per head than was the case in Northern Ireland. The party is for social housing as a concept but it is against building houses when the opportunity arises.

The question has been put and answered.

I do not know if Deputy Higgins struggles with addition but if she is good enough to take a look at what happened, she would see that Sinn Féin was proposing more social housing, as we do. We make no apologies for that and we will continue to do it. Our housing strategy is to ensure people get housed, unlike the policies of this Government, which ensure that homelessness increases day on day.

Could we have a question?

I have a question on the vaccine roll-out. We all know that vaccines do not save lives: getting vaccinated saves lives. What matters is getting the vaccine where it needs to be. I have been contacted by front-line healthcare workers over the weekend who have seen staff within our hospital system and communities getting prioritised who do not have patient-facing roles. They have said it is simply not a case of what a person does but who you know. That must stop. We must ensure the vaccine gets to the front line, where it is needed.

Will the Tánaiste make a statement on this today? Will the Government issue guidance to hospitals to ensure the vaccine gets to the front line where it is needed first?

The Deputy's time is up. I am not addressing anyone in particular but this is not fair to other Deputies. Will the Tánaiste just reply to the question?

Under the protocol for prioritising people for the vaccine, the first group comprises nursing home residents and staff, as the Deputy knows. The second group comprises healthcare workers who have patient-facing roles and who either work with Covid-19 patients or other patients, such as in emergency departments. They are most at risk and they are supposed to be prioritised over healthcare staff who do not have patient-facing roles. We must allow a certain level of flexibility in hospitals but the Government policy and National Immunisation Advisory Committee, NIAC, recommendations are very clear. Healthcare workers with patient-facing roles should be prioritised over healthcare workers who do not have such roles, but all healthcare workers will be vaccinated.

My request is to ascertain the current position of the scheduling of the Garda compensation Bill, which has been on the list for some considerable time and would affect a large number of gardaí

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and I know he has raised it many times in the past. It is on the priority list of the legislative programme published the other day.

After being closed on a temporary basis in 2017, Castlerea fire station in my constituency was permanently closed last July. I raised the matter here at the time. In parliamentary question replies and correspondence to me since, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, consistently stated the fire station was closed due to internal staffing matters. He is either being misled or misinformed because I attended the council meeting at which the announcement was made and it was done following a review of the fire ground in Castlerea, which apparently indicated we no longer need a fire service.

Castlerea is the second-largest town in County Roscommon and it also has one of the largest prisons in the State. There is now no prison in the State further away from a fire station than the prison in Castlerea. Will the Tánaiste ask the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, at least to read the report that led to the closure of the fire station and consider reviewing the decision?

I am aware of the concerns about Castlerea fire station and Senator Aisling Dolan has raised the matter as well. I do not personally know the details but I will certainly speak to the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and let him know this was raised by the Deputy in the Chamber and ask him to engage with her directly on it.

Our programme for Government states a commission on housing will be established to review various aspects of housing provision concerning tenure and standards. There is an urgent need to address security of tenure and long-term tenancy rights for renters. We also seek high standards but are often let down by investigation and enforcement. Will the Tánaiste update us on progress for the commission for housing? Will the commission look at the programme for Government commitment on a referendum on housing?

I will have to double-check but my understanding is we plan to establish that commission this year. One of the matters we will ask the commission to consider is the possibility of a referendum enshrining the right to housing in our Constitution.