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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 21 Jan 2021

Vol. 1003 No. 4

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Aside from the leaders, 20 Deputies have indicated. Some are not in the room. With co-operation and sticking to the time limits, we will get through it.

This week's "RTÉ Investigates" documentary "Stuck in the Rough" was hard to watch. It revealed the harsh reality of life in the streets and people forced to sleep rough. Three of those people, Dan, Natalie and Joe, spoke openly and honestly about their lives, how they became homeless and their hopes for their future. Listening to them was heartbreaking. Dan, Natalie and Joe are being failed by the homeless system and by this Government.

The documentary showed how Dan and Joe were refused emergency accommodation because they had no local connection on a night when there were 75 beds in Dublin hostels. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage , Deputy Darragh O'Brien, told the Dáil last year that this practice would end. On Tuesday night of this week, Mendicity, a homeless day service in Dublin, confirmed it is still happening. Will the Tánaiste state clearly that the practice of refusing people emergency accommodation on local connection grounds must end? Will he personally contact the director of the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive to make clear that this is the express policy of the Government?

I thank the Deputy. I did not have an opportunity to watch that programme but I am going to. I have recorded it and many people have said to me that it is essential viewing for all of us as politicians. I will make a point of doing that. On the local county rule, if you like, it seems to be very unfair that somebody would be turned down for a place and left on the streets because they were not in the right county at the time. There may be a good reason for it. I do not know what the explanation is but I will certainly speak to the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, about it and see what we can do.

I ask the Tánaiste to set out clearly and specifically the degree of co-operation between our authorities and Northern Ireland on Covid.

I listened to his comment in reply to another Deputy that there were problems with data-sharing. That is just not acceptable. I understand there is a memorandum of understanding. How is that being implemented, specifically? I am hearing increasingly complaints that there is not a timely exchange of data, that information co-ordination is far from what it should be and that that is having an impact on our effectiveness as an island to combat Covid.

What co-operation is there, who is driving it, what is the nature of it and what is the Government's intent? Is it the Government's intent to have a co-ordinated island approach? If it is, what specifically is the Government doing to achieve it?

As the Deputy mentioned, a memorandum of understanding, MOU, is in place between Northern Ireland and Ireland. It operates mainly at Chief Medical Officer, CMO, to Chief Medical Officer level, so it is Dr. Tony Holohan and Dr. Michael McBride who mainly operate the MOU, but of course there is close contact between the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, and the Minister, Robin Swann, in Northern Ireland. Regularly, there are meetings involving the First Minister, the deputy First Minister, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and sometimes the UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

We are two different jurisdictions; that is the reality of the situation. Part of the Good Friday Agreement provides that Northern Ireland is autonomous and makes it own decisions, and we make our own decisions as well. We do not have the exact same strategy and policies, but as much as possible we try to co-ordinate and align what we are doing. We have seen difficulties when there is one set of restrictions north of the Border and another south. We try to align the restrictions as much as possible. They are fairly aligned at the moment because both the North and the South are in lockdown. We have not been able to do that in respect of travel into Belfast because that is considered by the Executive to be domestic travel. We are trying to-----

We are over time. I call Deputy Whitmore.

What measures does the Government intend to take to ensure that the pharmaceutical companies involved in the mother and baby home vaccine trials, and the religious orders that were so centrally involved in running the institutions, will contribute appropriately to redress for the survivors? Does the Government intend for those measures to be mandatory?

Certainly, when it comes to the religious orders, it is our view that they should make a substantial contribution. The State has to take primary responsibility for what happened in those institutions but the religious orders have responsibility as well. We will be, and have been, calling on them to make a contribution. Whether we are able to enforce that if they do not make one, we just do not know at this stage, but that is something the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, will be working on.

What about the pharmaceutical companies?

Today, the Department of Health announced the commencement of and the funding for the medical cannabis access programme under the HSE service plan. It is very welcome, after five years of campaigning by parents and others. It has been a very long road and finally, this year, people will get medical cannabis products under prescription.

The confinement to three conditions is very restrictive. Many people who suffer from chronic pain seek alternatives in medical cannabis. Will they be included?

What is the funding model for the access programme? Will people really get access? The licensing system that has been in place for the past four years is extremely bureaucratic and reimbursement is completely arbitrary. These are the most important issues for parents and individuals who seek access to medical cannabis.

I am really glad to hear that the medical cannabis programme is now a reality. There have been a number of false dawns over the years but I read the other day that it is now becoming a reality. It is a long time coming and I acknowledge the Deputy's role in bringing us to this point as one of the people who led the charge for legislation in this area early on. As for which conditions qualify, that has to be a clinical decision made by medical specialists rather than by politicians. They will have to make that decision based on evidence and science.

I do not know the answer to the Deputy's question on funding but I will ask the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to revert to him on it.

I wish to ask about the nursing homes support scheme (amendment) Bill. When can we expect that legislation to come before the House? Will it be backdated to when the Bill was introduced in 2019? The Bill seeks to protect family farms and family businesses and to cap their obligations under the scheme to three years.

I do not have an exact date but I am told it is almost ready and that it will be before the Houses in the very near future. Hopefully, that means it will be enacted by the summer recess, if not before. I do not know whether it is going to be retrospective. In general, unfortunately, legislation like that cannot be, but it will be important to get it done.

Can there be an immediate review of the HSE priority list for the vaccination programme? There are a number of inconsistencies in the HSE's own guide for vulnerable people. There are seriously vulnerable people, such as those with cystic fibrosis, family carers and people who provide home help. In Tipperary, there is the case of Valerie, a wonderful young woman who had a terrible accident some years ago. She has 24-7 care, which her parents organise for her in a private capacity on foot of an award she got from the HSE after her devastating accident. She has five full-time carers and two part-time ones. I have visited her a few times. Her family are very worried in case anything happens to any of the carers, because there will be nobody else to care for her. She is a private person employing these people, paying PRSI and everything else.

Cystic fibrosis patients, too, are deeply concerned and we know how vulnerable they are. They are regarded by the HSE as very vulnerable on one list, but on the vaccination list they are not. There is huge inconsistency. Will the Government have the list reviewed immediately?

The prioritisation is assessed by the national immunisation advisory council, NIAC, and signed off by the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET. It is based on medical need and medical risk, with those most at risk of getting sick and dying being vaccinated first. That means residents in nursing homes, with those most at risk of contracting it - healthcare workers - getting it second. We will then move on to the over-70s. We hope to start vaccinating them next month and that, by the end of March, 1 million people will have had both vaccine doses and about 400,000 will have had at least their first dose. That will include healthcare workers, nursing home residents and staff and the over-70s. I think that perhaps at that point, when those three groups are done, that might be the time for NIAC to review the prioritisation order. I do not think that anyone could doubt that those three groups are the ones who need to get it first.

Ireland has one of the highest leakage rates of drinking water in Europe and the Dublin City Council area has one of the highest leakage rates in Ireland. Partly as a result of that, it is proposed to build a pipeline across Ireland to ship water from the River Shannon. That, obviously, would cause huge disruption to landowners, a huge cost to the economy and unforeseeable consequences for the environment. One of the main reasons given for not fixing the leaks in the Dublin area relates to interference with commercial activity on our streets. There is no commercial activity on the streets of Dublin at the moment. Is now not the time to fix the leaks in Dublin?

It may well be, and Irish Water has an increase in its capital budget for this year to carry out repairs and improvements in Dublin and throughout the country. It has been designated as essential construction, so it can go ahead with that.

I thank Deputies for their co-operation. I will move on to the Ceann Comhairle's list from yesterday, beginning with Deputy Mythen.

As the Tánaiste is aware, Rosslare Europort has been chosen as a major supply base for future offshore wind farms and projects by XELLZ, a Dutch company. Does he know how many permanent jobs will be created by this company and what percentage of its workforce will be Irish? Will Government funds be made available for the Europort business park?

I am afraid I do not know the answers to the Deputy's questions as to how many people will be employed, but I will certainly ask the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to give him an update if he can, as the Minister with responsibility for the port. I do not believe that my Department has received any application for funding for the business park, but if there is one, we will certainly look at it favourably.

The lack of broadband is now becoming a living nightmare for thousands of workers who cannot work from their homes and students who are unable to connect from their homes to the schools. We await the roll-out of national broadband, which is great, whenever it happens. In the last week alone, I have been contacted by families from Dunmanway, Coomhola, Bantry, Drimoleague, Kinsale, Bandon, Adrigole, Dungarvan and up to 40 households in Kilmacsimon. All these have little or no broadband in west Cork.

Only a number of months ago, I asked the Taoiseach to invest in wireless operator companies, such as DigitalForge, which can provide 70 Mbps broadband to the home at a minimum cost. This would have meant a tiny investment by the State but no one listened. One young student in Drimoleague who I spoke to over the weekend and who has since spoken to 103FM has no mobile phone coverage, never mind broadband, and he is trying to do his leaving certificate. What answer has the Tánaiste for these students or workers in west Cork who are still in the dark ages with regard to communication?

We have signed the contract for the national broadband plan. That is a €3 billion investment in rural Ireland, probably the biggest ever investment in rural Ireland and perhaps the most significant since rural electrification. With that plan, we are able to connect approximately 100,000 farms, businesses and homes across rural Ireland to high-speed broadband every year. We would love to be able to do it quicker. It will take between five and seven years, unfortunately. I know that is a huge disappointment for people who want and need broadband now but that is as quick as we can do it. If it can be sped up in any way, the money and political will are there.

I have a similar question to one the Tánaiste was asked previously. It relates to his proposal on facilitating working from home and the idea of 20% of public servants working in that scenario and, obviously, Covid-19 being a major accelerator of it. The Tánaiste, however, said he was exploring the possibilities of acceleration of the national broadband plan. I know the Minister, Deputy Ryan, said he had conversations with National Broadband Ireland, NBI. We have also been told by NBI in committee meetings that it has its own team looking at acceleration and we are expecting updated timelines and deadlines within the next period.

The Tánaiste spoke about increasing remote working hubs, which I believe falls under the remit of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. What exactly is the Tánaiste's plan regarding this acceleration? What dealings has he had with NBI and with the Ministers, Deputies Ryan and Humphreys?

The Minister, Deputy Ryan, has engaged with NBI on this. He and I together have engaged with Eir on it and we are exploring any possibilities that exist to speed up the roll-out of the national broadband plan. Unfortunately, it is running a little bit behind because of Covid-19. It is running a few months behind but we want to accelerate it and, if possible, make it a four- to five-year programme rather than the seven-year programme it is now. At a minimum, however, we will connect 100,000 homes, farms and businesses across rural Ireland every year. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and I are working together on the issue of remote hubs and we have additional funding for them this year. There are 300 hubs across the country and we want to upgrade them and build more. There will be funding for that as well.

I will go through the list of names because I do not believe Deputies Bruton, Michael Healy-Rae and Tóibín are in the Chamber. I call Deputy Kerrane.

I wish to ask the Tánaiste about the three weeks parents' leave and benefit that was announced in the budget more than three months ago. As the Tánaiste will be aware, many parents are waiting for this. The only option available to them up to now has been to take unpaid parental leave, which many simply cannot afford to take. Many parents, especially those who have had new babies, have not been able to return to work after the paternity leave has ended. They have been left with no option. They cannot access childcare and the only option is unpaid leave.

The legislation is listed as a priority. When will that legislation we brought to the House? How quickly will parents be able to avail of this three weeks parents' leave? I welcome that parents who cannot access childcare where schools or childcare settings are closed can access the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. Will the Government publicise that for parents who are not aware they can access the PUP?

Parents' benefit or paid parental leave was brought in by the previous Government and is very much one of our proudest achievements to try to improve work-life balance and help parents. That legislation is supposed to be brought in during this session, which will then allow it to be introduced later in the year.

My question is about the affordable housing Bill, which was promised legislation. Given the importance of the subject, might it be possible to bring it before the House as a matter of urgency?

That is priority legislation so we expect it to be in the House shortly.

I wish to ask the Tánaiste for more detail about the Plan for Living with Covid-19 roadmap. In particular, what specific metrics will be used by Government and the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, to indicate when it is safe to exit level 5 of the restrictions? For instance, will it be on the reproductive number falling below a certain level or the number of daily cases, or other metrics dealing with the positivity rate, including hospitalisations or availability of ICU beds?

I am sure the Tánaiste is aware through his Department of the need to manage expectations of businesses. The same applies to the public as well as the tourism sector and sporting organisations that legitimately want to understand where the country stands. I feel specific metrics from a robust, risk-based scientific approach need to be applied to each of the levels within the Plan for Living with Covid-19 roadmap. Therefore, I would appreciate if the Tánaiste could provide clarity about the plan from exiting level 5 and what sort of metrics need to be achieved over the next six weeks.

The Plan for Living with Covid-19 sets out the metrics we use to determine whether we can ease restrictions and go down a level or increase restrictions and go up a level. It includes deaths and five-day and seven-day average cases, the number of ICU beds available, hospitalisations and, of course, crucially, the trajectory. Is it getting better or worse, and if so, how fast? We have generally avoided specific or exact numbers because it confines decision-making. As the Deputy will appreciate, the number of cases detected every day might depend on the number of tests that are done and the positivity rate might depend, for example, on how much serial testing is being done from nursing homes. Therefore, we did not want to put in exact numbers but they are the kind of criteria. It is without doubt that cases are falling at the moment but, unfortunately, they are not falling enough. It is still at around 2,000 cases per day, which is high. Our ICUs are full and our hospitals are pretty full too, so there will be another few weeks left at the current level of restrictions.

Last week, point-to-point racing was removed as an elite sport. This will have serious implications for our world-renowned national hunt industry. What plans for a financial rescue package are in place? Our whole national hunt breeding industry will be severely impacted. Point-to-point racing is the shop window for selling the majority of our national hunt young horses. This will have a severe impact on all sales during the summer for three-year-olds down to yearlings and foals. There are severe financial implications for the whole national hunt industry. What plans are in place by the Government regarding financial rescue for our national hunting industry?

I know this is an issue of real concern to the Deputy. It has been raised with me by others as well. I do not know if there are any plans at present for financial packages for the industry. I will ask the Minister to personally come back to the Deputy in detail, however.

There is probably only one service nationally offering specialist treatment for people with gambling addiction. In four weeks, this service will have to close because of a lack of funding. What will people who are stuck in gambling addiction and their families do then? The service needs funding for the next few months until the Gambling Control Bill is finally passed and the social fund is established. Is it supposed to tell people in the meantime that the Government does not care? Will the Tánaiste help this service? We need the Government to care and provide the external problem gambling service with the short-term funding it is looking for.

Will the Tánaiste give a commitment today to find the short-term funding to keep that service open until the social fund is established?

I am not familiar with the particular service the Deputy mentioned but I am familiar with the real problem of problem gambling, which is probably getting worse during this pandemic because people are so restricted. If the Deputy wants to pass the details on to me or to my office, I will see what we can do. It would probably be a matter for the Minister for Health or the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Feighan. If the Deputy passes the details on to me I will make inquiries.

I want to raise the issue of supports for children with autism with additional needs. I have listened to many Ministers talk in recent weeks about the issue of children with additional needs and, to be honest, I found it quite nauseating. I worked as a child and family support network co-ordinator with Tusla for many years and I have worked with so many families who, prior to Covid-19, found it next to impossible to access services in an appropriate time. They usually waited years for assessments, early interventions, school-age teams and even placements. Today, I was in contact with a parent of James, who is eight years old and who is in palliative care. He lives in Corduff and has two days a week of service on the Navan Road, but he cannot get to it because he has no transport. I raised this matter during the last lockdown when this parent provided her own transport. She cannot afford to keep paying for a taxi so can funding be provided for that?

If the Deputy wants to pass on the details of that family to me, I will look into it and see if we can do something for them in terms of a transport grant or making some arrangement so they can get to their service. Our main focus is trying to get primary schools back open for children with special and additional needs. I am glad that engagement has resumed between the Department of Education and trade unions on that. It is hoped that can be done soon because those kids and parents need the special schools open.

Page 76 of the programme for Government states:

Family carers are the backbone of care provision in Ireland. They deserve support and recognition from Government.

The Government commits to "Review and update the National Carers' Strategy" and to "Develop a pension solution for family carers that recognises their important work". When will the national carers strategy be updated and when a will pension solution be proposed so that our carers will feel appreciated in some small way?

That will be led by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys. I am not sure when she will start the review. I suspect it will be this year and I will find out for sure and let the Deputy's office know.

I thank the Tánaiste and his ministerial colleagues for all the work they have done in putting in place significant supports for our small business sector. Unfortunately, there are thousands of self-employed people running small businesses in this country who are finding it exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, to gain access to those supports because of the way in which they were initially designed. The Tánaiste and Dr. Mike Ryan have often made the case that speed trumps perfection, and in this instance it was incredibly important to get those supports in place for our businesses. We have €50 million residing in Fáilte Ireland and we have €50 million residing in the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. Up to 7,000 people in the entertainment sector who are self-employed and a number of small businesses in the hospitality sector cannot gain access to those funds because of the criteria associated with them. Can we do an audit to determine how much of those funds have been expended in support of small businesses? Can we look at the many examples of small businesses that have been in touch with us to tell us why they cannot access those funds? Can we look to innovate and amend the scheme?

This kind of falls between my Department and the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. On my side, we are reviewing our schemes with a view to consolidating them. We have some very good schemes such as the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, which helps with payroll, the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, which helps with the fixed costs of running a premises if it has been closed, low cost loans, reduced VAT rates, and so on. In my Department, we are looking in particular at whether we need a new scheme for those businesses that have a premises but do not qualify for the CRSS because they are not open to the public and therefore were never closed to the public but whose trade is down 75% or 80% nonetheless. We are working on a scheme for them. I know the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, has quite a lot in her budget for this year and plans to develop those schemes in January and February.

There are only three dedicated adult eating disorder beds in the State. It should be noted that these are not national beds but beds that have been dedicated for eating disorders in community healthcare organisation, CHO, 6. In other parts of the HSE, adult patients are admitted to local general mental health units and attend generic inpatient treatment programs. Generic treatment does not work for people who have anorexia or bulimia. When will the Government uphold its promise in the programme for Government to put in place dedicated eating disorder teams in each CHO across the State? Three beds just does not cut it.

I thank the Deputy for raising the important issue of eating disorders, which is much more common than people think and which probably does not get discussed enough in this House. I will have to get a report on the plan to meet that commitment for the Deputy from the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly but it is a commitment we are determined to meet.

Last week, we found out that the Secretary General of the Department of Health is set to receive a pay increase of €81,000. In that same week, recipients of the PUP, who are on €350 per week, received their first tax bill. There are varying accounts as to how the decision was reached to provide for this increase and I would like the Tánaiste to outline the timeline of the decision-making process, including details on who was involved in the decision, when it was signed off on and who signed off on it.

It is important to say that this will be the salary for the next Secretary General of the Department of Health. The incumbent does not receive it. That job will be open to competition and people will be able to compete for it and for that new salary. As is the case with any salary of this nature, the decision on it is made by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, but he made that decision with the full knowledge and agreement of the three party leaders in government.

I want to ask the Tánaiste about the atypical working scheme. It is an issue I raised before, I wrote to the Minister for Justice last week about it and I got a letter back yesterday saying that there were 350 people waiting to get their applications processed for this scheme. These are medical people on the front line who have jobs waiting for them in Ireland and who cannot get in because of bureaucracy. It is a terrible situation we are in. We have huge pressure in our health services and we have nurses and front-line workers needing to get into these hospitals and yet they wait abroad and cannot come because of this huge delay. Bureaucracy should not be blocking progress on this. Will the Tánaiste intervene in this situation and ensure that these people get into the country and get into our health system as quickly as possible? They are not coming under some pretence. They are coming here because they have jobs waiting for them and we need them in our health services now.

On a point of order, the Ceann Comhairle called on Deputy Michael Collins earlier. He was on the list yesterday and the Ceann Comhairle called on him again today. I had put my name down behind Deputy Michael Collins and yet six Sinn Féin speakers spoke without the Ceann Comhairle ever calling my name. They did not walk up to the stage and singly put down their names while I was sitting in the Chamber. Is there somebody putting down block lists, therefore, to get their names down or are they going up singly to put down their names, as I did this morning after Deputy Michael Collins? I was not allowed to speak.

I offer my apologies to the Deputy.

I am not sure what happened with Deputy O'Donoghue but I come in and put my name down every day and I come in early to do it. Maybe there was a mix-up today but we do not put our names down in blocks. We come in early because we want to speak.

My apologies to Deputy O'Donoghue. The lists were here before me when I came in so I apologise for that. Can we deal with Deputy Martin Kenny's question?

This was raised in the Dáil last week and I undertook to look into it. I have a report from the Department of Justice which I will send on to the Deputy. It is being worked on and the delays might not be as severe as people may think.

Since there was an issue, can we hear Deputy O'Donoghue?

What is the Government going to do about the cartel-like system in the beef industry where the same feeder groups are getting the high prices? At the end of the year when they are audited and do their accounts, they have an average price, but if the company is audited and the beef factories are audited, it will show that the same suppliers all year round are getting the high prices and the beef farmers who want to sell their cattle are always getting the low prices. The Minister should take out the average price, go in and audit who is getting the high prices all the time and who has the highest farm payment coming in in the country, and find out if the feeder farms into those factories are always getting the high prices and leaving the genuine farmers who have beef with the low prices.

Deputy Nolan is on the same matter.

There has been a serious problem with beef farmers not receiving a fair price for a long time. Although the prices have improved, it is not before time. There is an issue in terms of how business is done. We need this looked at. I posed a question to know why transfer pricing was not included in the Grant Thornton report and I asked the Minister to deal with that matter. I hope we will have more transparency and, indeed, that farmers, particularly beef farmers, will be rewarded for producing high-quality produce. They are not being treated fairly and there needs to be oversight and transparency in regard to this.

I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue. I will seek a reply from the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine for them. If they have evidence of meat factories behaving as cartels, which, of course, is against the law, I would encourage them to contact the consumer and competition authority about that with the information they have.

That concludes Questions on Promised Legislation. I am sorry if there was some slight misunderstanding in the handover between the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and myself.