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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 11 Feb 2021

Vol. 1004 No. 2

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Again, I ask everyone to co-operate on time.

I must point out to the Tánaiste that I made my call for the Central Bank to intervene and asked for the Government to support it before papers were lodged in the High Court. That is just for the record.

We continue to be the laggard when it comes to international travel. When I last raised the issue with the Tánaiste, he said he would examine making it mandatory for all international travellers to take a PCR test post arrival, as recommended by NPHET, but there have been no subsequent updates in this regard and no movement on the issue. Will the Tánaiste tell us when that will happen? In addition, the Government has continued to move at a snail's pace on the introduction of hotel quarantine for international arrivals, despite the fact that 60% of travellers are, according to the Taoiseach, travelling for non-essential reasons. The Tánaiste knows the British Government is moving ahead with this in the coming days. He knows there is no international travel into the North barring that from Britain. When, therefore, will we see legislation to deal with this issue put before the House and crucially, when will we see hotel quarantine introduced here?

I thank the Deputy. What we have done thus far is to reduce international and oversea travel into Ireland by about 95%. Anybody arriving in the country is required to have a PCR test taken three days before arrival. There is 98% or 99% compliance with that which is very good. Mandatory home quarantine is now the law. Next week we expect to have legislation on mandatory hotel quarantine. As I said earlier, we are adding 18 countries to the list for which mandatory hotel quarantine will be required, increasing it to 20.

The laggard is Northern Ireland. It may well be the case that at the moment, there is not any travel from beyond Britain and Ireland but there is travel from Britain into Northern Ireland and there is no requirement to have a PCR test, nor one for mandatory home quarantine or for mandatory hotel quarantine. I appeal to the Deputy, as a member of the Sinn Féin leadership, to use his influence on the co-leaders of that government to change that policy.

Six months ago I raised the issue of antigen testing in a constructive way. I have one such test to hand. I will take it when I go home to protect my family, particularly my parents who are elderly and live close to me. It costs €5 and as I said I raised this six months ago. The European Commission has approved their use and they are being used increasingly internationally. The HSE even uses the results of these tests in its counters for those who are infected. Liverpool City Council has tested 500,000 people and has had very good results, showing a rate of 84% to 91%, which is shown to be accurate. The UK has bought tens of thousands of these tests. Surely therefore, we should be using antigen testing as part of a mix of ways for managing the virus going forward. Many people have called for this. The technologies have improved. As an example, many of the teachers' unions have asked that these be used as part of the solution to opening up the schools in the coming weeks.

Will the Government consider that, please?

I agree with the Deputy on his essential point. Antigen testing has a greater role to play in Ireland's battle against Covid, but it is one of those areas where we are very much led by medical and scientific advice. The Deputy will be aware that HIQA carried out a health technology assessment on this and NPHET has given advice on it quite recently which reaffirms the use of antigen testing in certain scenarios such as symptomatic cases and outbreaks. However, the advice that we currently have very strongly from the Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Holohan, and NPHET is that antigen testing has its limitations and that it is not particularly useful in terms of mass screening. It is useful when it comes to symptomatic cases but it misses very high numbers of asymptomatic cases and, therefore, could give people a significant level of false reassurance. It could lead to people being told that they are negative when they are not and therefore spreading the disease rather than stopping it. This is something where we will be very much advised and guided by the doctors and scientists.

Over the weekend, the Tánaiste was reported discussing the future of social welfare, and social welfare reform in particular. He mentioned that the cessation of the pandemic unemployment payment, whenever that happens, will provide the opportunity for reform of social welfare. Rather than highlighting the fact that the current social welfare rates are set below the poverty line and perhaps taking the opportunity to bring them in line with the minimum essential standard of living, there seemed to be a suggestion that PRSI contributions will be a determining factor in paying a higher earner who loses his or her job a higher social welfare payment. Is that the priority of this Government? How would it be paid for? I highlight that the situation here is often contrasted with the German model, whereby a German employer pays employer social insurance contributions at 20.5% of all gross earnings. In Ireland, the rate is currently set at 8.8% for earnings up to €398 and at 11.5% for earnings over €398. Should we be thinking about moving social contributions here to be in line with those in Germany if we are going to follow that model?

It is certainly not a Government priority but it is an option, one that I think is worthy of consideration. It is the norm, or at least commonplace, across advanced European welfare systems to have pay-related benefits such that if a person who has been paying PRSI into the system for many years loses his or her job, that person gets a higher payment, at least in the initial weeks and months of unemployment, which helps the person to adjust to a sudden loss in income. It is very commonplace in Nordic welfare systems. The Deputy referred to the German welfare system. It is something that is worthy of consideration here as well. Such a system used to exist in Ireland. We had pay-related benefits previously but they were phased out as part of necessary reductions in spending. If it can be afforded from the Social Insurance Fund, then I think it is worthy of consideration. I do not think it is the only welfare reform that is worthy of consideration; of course, there are others that merit consideration too.

I heard the Tánaiste tell Deputy Michael Collins that he does not know much about Barryroe, but he is probably aware that the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, recently granted approval for survey works to continue or begin at Barryroe. I am not being smart, but I want to tell the Tánaiste and Deputy Michael Collins that since the Green Party entered Government, the science has not changed. The science around climate has not changed. We still need to leave 80% of gas reserves in the ground. That is the globally accepted science. Proceeding with this survey flies in the face of that fact. This could lead to the release of billions of barrels of oil and gas that we desperately need not to burn. Is the Tánaiste aware that the Government has ample powers under existing licensing laws not to renew or extend any applications to proceed with this survey at Barryroe?

As I stated earlier, I am not aware of the details in that regard but I will let the Minister, Deputy Ryan, know that the Deputy has raised the issue here today. We need to be frank with the public and each other on this issue. No matter how quickly we develop renewable energy and renewable sources, we will still need to burn gas for the foreseeable future. If we were to turn off the gas tomorrow, we would not be able to power our country, industry or homes. The question that arises is whether one uses the gas one may have or one imports it from Russia, the Middle East or other places. The latter option obviously has negative consequences too.

Since 2011, three programmes for Government have pushed a technological university on the south east. I use the word "pushed" deliberately. Where is the Government's plan? IT Carlow and Waterford Institute of Technology, WIT, have fundamentally different visions for education. IT Carlow is oriented around the greater Dublin area. It is positioned around the strong Dublin universities. WIT has filled the need for a university in the south east. It is the top institute of technology nationally, having been awarded institute of technology of the year for the third time in ten years. The headquarters is to be fudged. There is to be distributed leadership, whatever that is supposed to mean. Massive amounts of capital have flowed into the sector. The small fraction that went into the south east went entirely to Carlow. In fact, of the €1.7 billion of capital investment undertaken in the sector in the past decade, zero has been invested in new teaching buildings in WIT. The State's entire investment supported IT Carlow's vision to deliver part-time and access programmes to the greater Dublin area. The State has abandoned the south east.

I thank the Deputy.

It is clear that in the past decade no planning was done by Government.

Thank you, Deputy.

How can the Government ask anyone to sign up to the technological university without a realistic and honest plan for-----

We are out of time.

I think we are making some really significant progress when it comes to establishing a technological university for the south east. The previous Government passed legislation making technological universities possible. We have two already, one in Dublin and the other in Munster. I am confident in and strongly supportive of the possibility that the next one will be in the south east. It will make a big difference not just for Waterford, but for the wider region. There will be more students staying in the region and more students coming into the region. In terms of helping to attract foreign direct investment, that will be a big plus too. The Deputy will be aware that the Government is working to secure new sites and locations for that campus to allow it to expand in Waterford city in particular. I hope we will have good news on that soon.

Early last year, I asked the former Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, what supports or provisions had been put in place for students for the academic year 2020. All present know the trouble students are going through. Will the Government provide a financial support package for struggling students for this academic year, which began in September 2020? I refer to the students who cannot receive refunds for private accommodation, as well as other students. What provisions is the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, putting in place for student accommodation for the next academic year, which is due to begin in September 2021? Students and their families are going through an awful time. It is shocking that they have had to pay money out and now have to pay for the coming academic year as well, with the probability that they will get no return on that. They will not have their accommodation costs refunded if they are forced to stay at home. It is very unfair to those students. They have come through the leaving certificate and attending college virtually. It goes on and on. We need definite proposals to support those students.

There is no promised legislation on that issue but I will certainly mention to the Minister that the Deputy has raised the issue and I will ask that a reply be forwarded to him.

As the Tánaiste is aware, the SUSI grant application process will open next week. It is very important for many students to get support in the college years that are coming up ahead of them. There is a cohort of students whose parents earn less than €24,000 per year and who do not have a social welfare element. It is a very small cohort, but they are not entitled to a top-up, whereas students whose parents are on less than €24,000 per year but have a social welfare benefit as part of that do get a top-up. That is a very wrong system that is operating in that regard. I ask that it be looked at and sorted out by the Government such that these students who are most in need of support can actually get it.

I thank the Deputy for pointing out that anomaly. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, is leading a review of the SUSI grant system at the moment. I appreciate that it may not be completed in time for these students, so I will make sure that he is aware of the issue that has been raised.

I am moving on to a long list of speakers. Some of the Deputies on the list are not present. I call Deputy Guirke.

I wish to raise an urgent issue in respect of children's diabetes services at Mullingar regional hospital. Parents have been notified in writing that, due to ongoing unsafe staffing levels, all paediatric diabetes clinic appointments have been cancelled with immediate effect. This affects people in five counties. Many of the parents of the 130 children and adolescents attending this much-needed service have contacted me. They are panicking at the thought of having to travel to Tallaght, Temple Street or Crumlin hospitals, which are already at capacity.

The clinic needs urgent supports now or it will be permanently cancelled and the consultant paediatrician will seek employment elsewhere. The parents stressed the importance of keeping Professor O'Grady on board. Time and time again, he has gone above and beyond for these children.

I ask the Tánaiste or the Minister for Health to intervene immediately and put the resources in place to save these vital services at Mullingar regional hospital.

I wish to speak on the same matter. When I raised this as a Topical Issue matter with the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, in November, I was told that there should be no cause for worry regarding the service in Mullingar. That clearly was not true because what the parents and staff have feared for almost two years has come to pass. The number of children going through this service means it should have two clinical nurse managers but it has none. There is no social work or psychology element to the supports. It has been made explicit that unless the full multidisciplinary service is resourced, it will not come back. The Tánaiste must intervene.

Go raibh maith agat, a Theachta.

I ask him to please engage with Professor O'Grady and ask the Ireland East Hospital Group for as full-----

Deputy, thank you. I ask for co-operation so that we can get everybody in.

I thank the Deputies. This is obviously a matter of grave concern to people in the region. I do not have any details to hand but I will inform the Minister for Health that the matter was raised in the Chamber. I will ask him to look into the matter and get back to the Deputies directly.

I raise the issue of the decision to tax the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, in 2021 and its impact, particularly on low-income families. My office, as I am sure is the case in the offices of Members around the country, has been contacted by people who are fearful of the impact this will have on their day-to-day living costs, particularly when one considers utility bills and cost of living expenses. Will the decision be reviewed?

There is another element to this that affects people who have already been asked to pay. The Department of Social Protection is not talking to Revenue because it cannot get statements of accounts. Assumptions are then made by Revenue that distinctly disadvantage people who are being asked to pay this tax at a much higher level than is reflective of what they received.

The position is that the PUP, like most social welfare payments, is subject to income tax and the universal social charge, USC, in the same way, for example, as the State pension. Child benefit is exempt, but most social welfare payments are subject to tax if one earns enough money to pay income tax and the USC. Someone who, for example, earned €36,000 last year from work pays the same tax as someone who earned €36,000 comprising €10,000 in PUP and €26,000 from work. That is the way it works and it is only fair. We are allowing people to discharge that liability and pay that tax over a period of four years.

Israel's obligation to vaccinate Palestinians is clear under international law. The matter is not open to interpretation. Not only does the Geneva Convention dictate that the occupying power is responsible for the health and well-being of the occupied, the treaty, which is the bedrock of international law, specifically spells out an obligation to prevent the spread of pandemics. In the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, we have medical apartheid. Will the Taoiseach contact the Israeli Prime Minister directly and condemn the Israeli state for this breach of international law? Will this also be done through the UN Security Council of which Ireland is currently a member?

I am the Tánaiste so the Deputy will have to allow me take the matter up with the ambassador, rather than the Prime Minister of Israel who is no longer my counterpart. The point that the Deputy makes is exactly right. Israel is the occupying, controlling power in Palestinian territories and, therefore, has a duty and responsibility to provide basic healthcare, including vaccination against the pandemic. I will take that up with the Israeli ambassador.

I raise the matter of increased cardiac waiting lists at University Hospital Waterford. I received a reply to a parliamentary question last week, which showed that the number on inpatient waiting lists has increased from 300 at the end of 2018 to 730 at the end of 2020. More worrying is that the outpatient waiting lists increased from 1,057 to 1,700 in the space of two years. The number of people waiting over 12 months trebled. When are we going to get a second catheterisation laboratory? Can the Tánaiste confirm that the second laboratory will provide interventional support and services as well as diagnostic supports? When are we going to see 24-7 emergency cardiac care for the people of the south east? That has been a long-running issue for the people of Waterford and across the region.

We are seeing increased waiting lists for procedures and for outpatient appointments across the country, not just in Waterford. That is not solely or exclusively down to reduced staff or funding because the reverse is the case. There has been a big increase in the number of staff in the health service and a massive increase in spending in recent years but because of the need to shut down large parts of the health service because of Covid-19, we are seeing increased waiting lists in all areas as a result of the shutdown that occurred in the first and third waves of the virus.

I do not have an update for the Deputy on the catheterisation laboratory. I have an update from a few weeks ago that might now be out of date so I would prefer not to share it. I will make sure the Deputy gets an update.

After seeking answers for almost a week, it has been confirmed by the HSE to "The Michael Reade Show" on LMFM that a hotel in Louth that accommodates front-line workers under the temporary accommodation scheme is also accommodating workers from a nursing home who have tested positive for Covid-19. The fact that Covid negative front-line workers are being accommodated in a hotel in which Covid positive workers are also being accommodated by the HSE under the scheme is a serious matter. The HSE has not been transparent on the matter and initially denied the claims for six full days. Even the Taoiseach was not aware yesterday that the HSE had changed its story-----

Thank you, Deputy.

-----and stated that situation had happened because the rules of its scheme had been bypassed.

Thank you, Deputy.

What oversight is there of the administration of this scheme? How we do know this is not happening elsewhere?

Deputy, thank you.

How do we know it is not happening elsewhere or, indeed, everywhere? Where front-line-----

We are over time. Please, Deputy. Thank you. I am giving up at this point. A minute is a minute and the Deputy's colleagues are all waiting to get in.

I am not aware of this particular situation. It certainly sounds like it is far from ideal. However, if somebody tests positive for coronavirus and is self-isolating and staying in his or her room, other people should not be at risk, provided that those infected are self-isolating and staying in their rooms. I will certainly let the Minister for Health know that the Deputy raised these concerns and will ask him to contact her.

I ask the Tánaiste to intervene in a serious situation concerning the scallop fishers in County Wexford. There are seven such boats in total: five in Kilmore and two in Duncannon. From 1 March, they will be forbidden by the UK authorities to land their catch at any UK port. This will kill off the scallop industry in County Wexford. More than 120 families will be affected. This industry is worth more than €12 million to the local economy. Every €1 earned at sea creates €4 on land. I ask the Tánaiste to take this serious situation in hand and through the various Departments, including his own, to find a solution before the deadline of 1 March.

There is no legislation promised on that matter and I do not think I have any particular powers of intervention when it comes to such issues. I will let the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, who has responsibility for fisheries, know that the issue was raised and I will ask him to get back to the Deputy.

We hear at the moment about the roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines. I am getting calls to my office from people who are saying that there are still front-line workers and carers waiting for their vaccines and yet there are people who are not involved in the health system getting a vaccine. What traceability is there for people who are not in health service and other front-line services and yet are getting vaccines? What will be there to ensure that this does not happen anymore? I got five phone calls yesterday about people who are not in front-line services getting vaccines.

Does Deputy Michael Collins wish to speak on the same issue?

Like Deputy O'Donoghue, I am getting calls from doctors, nurses and home helps in west Cork that have not been able to get the vaccine yet. At the same time, I am getting calls indicating that in places councillors are getting the vaccine. Is this turning into a nod and wink situation where the vaccine will be given to some but not to others? At the very least, doctors, nurses, home helps and carers deserve to be offered the vaccine first. I ask the Tánaiste to explain why that is not happening on the ground.

The Government policy and rules around this are very clear. There are only three groups of people who can receive the vaccine at present, namely, care home residents over 65 years and care home staff and healthcare workers who interact with patients. It is important to bear in mind that some administrative and reception staff engage with patients. The third group is people who are over 85 years. Nobody else should be receiving the vaccine. If Deputies have examples of people receiving the vaccine who should not, they should let us know and we will follow it up.

Page 23 of the programme for Government states that the Government will review whether the legal provisions surrounding collective redundancies and the liquidation of companies effectively protect the rights of workers. There is no need for lengthy reviews; the dogs on the street know that the current legislation is inadequate. The Duffy Cahill report has been gathering dust on a shelf somewhere in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment for almost five years. With all due respect, that is the Tánaiste’s Department. The Debenhams workers are on the picket line for nearly a year at this stage. When will the Government do the right thing and implement the Duffy Cahill report and find a solution for the Debenhams workers?

That work is very much under way. The Company Law Review Group has done some work on the company law aspects of it. As the Deputy knows, the Duffy Cahill report does not recommend changes to company law and points out that so-called tactical insolvencies are already illegal and that there may be some need to change employment law on redundancy. Unfortunately, in my assessment, none of those changes would have made a difference in the Debenhams' case because there simply were not assets there. The assets, which included some stock and fixtures, did not add up to enough to discharge even the basic debts the company left behind. While we will make some changes in this area, sadly, it is not the case that it would have make a difference for the Debenhams workers, and it is unlikely to make a difference for future situations where there is a collective redundancy.

Deputy Ryan will have read the reports from the chairman of the Labour Court, Kevin Duffy, pointing out that there was no legal entitlement to two plus two on this occasion, and even a contractual entitlement to two plus two may not have existed because that applied in 2016 but not in the case of a liquidation.

I welcome the Covid-19 business aid scheme, CBAS, which the Tánaiste launched, to deal with people who may have fallen between two stools as regards the CRSS and other such supports, but a number of firms have contacted me who still fail to qualify as they do not rent a rateable business. I refer to where storage is carried out at home and a lot of contact is done over the telephone and the Internet, and also in cases where a business has rented premises but it is within a non-rateable building within a community centre. Could we look at the possibility of assisting some of the businesses if I give the Tánaiste the details, given that the intent of the scheme is to catch those who have fallen between two stools?

I would be happy to look at any cases or real-world examples the Deputy may have in that regard. My parliamentary party raised the issue with me as well last night. This is not the last scheme the Government will introduce to support business. I am open to the introduction of further schemes. However, I wish to be very clear; the purpose of the EWSS is to help with payroll costs. The purpose of the CRSS, the CBAS, and the new scheme for the tourism sector introduced by the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, is to help with the fixed costs of doing business.

I thank the Tánaiste.

We are not in a position to compensate people for lost income, other than the PUP, or lost profits. If we are thinking of adjusting the scheme or bringing in a new scheme, it has to be about fixed costs. Somebody who stores stock in their own home does not have a fixed cost.

I have many constituents in north Kildare who suffer from asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD, who want to know what stage the clean air strategy is at that was promised in the programme for Government. We in Ireland have one of the highest rates of lung disease in the world. The Irish Thoracic Society warns of an unprecedented crisis in lung health due to insufficient specialists and respiratory consultants. This problem is now going to be exacerbated by Covid and long Covid.

This week it was reported that air pollution is responsible for one in five deaths globally and one in ten in Europe. The Tánaiste is a doctor and he should get this; we need a strategy to be implemented as soon as possible. Could he tell me what stage it is at currently?

Hopefully, air pollution has reduced as a consequence of Covid and the lockdown given the significant decrease in transport-related emissions. I do not have a date for the clean air strategy. I do not know the date for its publication, but I will check it and make sure the Deputy's office is informed.

We are just out of time but a few Deputies who wish to speak remain on the list. Some of them are not present but I will take the ones who are present if they ask their question in 30 seconds and then we will go back to the Tánaiste for a quick response. Deputy McAuliffe is not here. I call Deputy Murnane O'Connor.

I welcome the reopening of schools for students with additional needs. I know the living with Covid plan is coming. It was reported in the newspapers today that we could be going into another five or six-week lockdown. I have been approached by small businesses in Carlow that are finding it difficult as they are unable to trade online. The food sector is operating a click-and-collect system. Could the Government consider extending it to small retail businesses? I understand we must be 100% compliant with Covid restrictions, but it is important.

This week the Committee of Public Accounts has asked the Government to stall the recruitment process for the new Secretary General of the Department of Health. If the process goes ahead, an additional €81,000 will be provided in remuneration for the position. The committee also dealt this week with the ever-increasing spiralling costs for the national children's hospital. We have two different scenarios; one in which we are told that the spiralling costs cannot be addressed at this stage and another concerning an outrageous increase in salary that we can stop. I urge the Tánaiste to ensure that it is stopped.

Níl Deputy Tóibín anseo. I call Deputy Cahill.

I appreciate being allowed to ask a question, a Cheann Comhairle. I wish to raise beef prices. We set up a forum to address the crisis in the beef industry. One of the key demands of stakeholders is that there would be price transparency. In the past two weeks, meat processors have dropped the price by 15 cent a kilo, while all the market indicators are that prices should be on an upward trend. Can the beef forum deliver transparency for primary producers?

Deputy McHugh is not here. I call on the Tánaiste to respond.

Deputy Murnane O'Connor raised the issue of click and collect and whether we can restore it for retail businesses. We can certainly give that some consideration, but I cannot make any promises today. One of the difficulties that arose with click and collect is that it did cause people to leave the house to make journeys and interact with other people and there is a public health risk in that. We prefer deliveries to click and collect, but at some point it will come back, although perhaps not for a while yet. We will give it consideration.

The Department of Health will benefit from being led by someone who has a good record in containing spiralling costs. The new interim Secretary General has that record and may save the State a lot of money in that regard but, as far as I am aware, the process to appoint a new permanent Secretary General will continue.

I do not know whether the beef forum can offer transparency, but we will do our best to make sure it does.

That concludes Questions on Promised Legislation.