An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

Go raibh maith agat a Thaoisigh, tá an t-am caite agat. Rachaimid ar aghaidh go dtí an chéad phíosa oibre eile, is é sin clár oibre na seachtaine. The House has agreed that, for the duration of the Covid-19 emergency only, the rapporteur's report of the Business Committee shall not be read out but shall be taken as read. Arising from it there are just two proposals to put to the House. Is the proposal for dealing with today's business agreed?

It is not agreed to. Yesterday, "RTÉ Investigates" published a report based on inspection reports it has received from the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, DRHE. The report shows that 34% of privately run homeless accommodation has had fire safety issues. It also showed conclusively that the national quality standards are not being applied to private providers of emergency accommodation. I have raised this with the Taoiseach before. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage has told the Dáil that these national standards are being applied to providers of privately run emergency homeless accommodation when that is not the case. I asked the Minister to update the Dáil on this and to correct the record. That has not been done. Will the Minister come before the Dáil this week to take questions and to update the record on this? It is very serious that the Minister with responsibility for housing does not seem to know what is going on in emergency homeless accommodation.

Does Deputy O'Callaghan want time for this or-----

He wants time today for the matter to be discussed.

My understanding is that the Business Committee organised the schedule for today and tomorrow, and I do not propose to deviate from that. Deputy O'Callaghan has probably read that the Dublin Region Homeless Executive has confirmed that all the issues identified in the inspections - and this is in the context of the recent release by the DRHE of inspection reports - were followed up and resolved "swiftly and comprehensively". There is no issue with having further engagement on this issue at a time that perhaps the Business Committee could organise and facilitate, but there is a set schedule for today which we should proceed with, given the important issues that are on the agenda for today and which were agreed by the Business Committee.

Is today's business agreed to? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with Thursday's business agreed to? Agreed.

Thirty-three Deputies have indicated on the Order of Business.

The HSE is proposing to remove in-school speech and language therapy services from the Holy Family School for the Deaf on the Navan Road and, I think, from the deaf schools in Cork and Limerick. Whatever the merits of the new children's disability network teams for provision of these services to the general population, it is beyond belief that consideration would even be given to removing speech and language therapy services from deaf children and young people who at some stage or another in their school careers rely very heavily on speech and language therapy. I do not have to tell the Taoiseach that the staff, the parents and the children and young people themselves are very concerned about this proposed move by the HSE. I ask him very simply to intervene and make this stop.

I am certainly not in favour of the removal of speech and language therapy services from schools for the deaf on the Navan Road, in Cork or anywhere else. I suspect this is part of the progressing disability strategy, which is nearly ten years old now and which had a different approach to providing speech and language services to children with special needs. My view is that we should move in the opposite direction and provide in-house and in-school multidisciplinary services for children with special needs. In education that initiative was taken on a pilot basis a year or two ago. In my view, that should be expanded because making services available to children in school in a co-ordinated, multidisciplinary way is the most effective way to support the development of the child. I passionately believe in that. I will follow up the matter.

Regarding vaccine supply, could we get a yes-no answer to the following question? Did the Government try to get some of the unused Pfizer vaccines, as Germany and Denmark have done? If so, why were we not successful? In addition, considering we are a world leader in pharmaceuticals, can the Taoiseach tell the Chamber why the Government's discussions with Merck and Pfizer have not been successful to date, given their presence in Ireland and their production of vaccines here for our people who desperately need them?

We have pursued alternative supplies. We got some additional supply. I have spoken to Pfizer and we have made it clear that anything we could do here to support or aid vaccine manufacturing capacity would be done. Pfizer, however, is satisfied that its planned configuration and capacity in Belgium and latterly in Germany in terms of BioNTech and in the United States are sufficient for it to meet its contractual needs. To be fair to Pfizer and BioNTech, they have met all their contractual commitments. There has been some reprofiling, to use that term, of the delivery schedule in that numbers can go up one week and down another at the beginning, but since then they have been consistent in their supply. We have just got notification that we will get an additional 45,000 Pfizer-BioNTech doses in the last two weeks of March. I have been in constant contact with the President of the European Commission. She texted me early this morning to say that another 4 million doses are coming from Pfizer for distribution across Europe. We will get about 45,000. The big push in Europe is to get capacity and production up. We have also approached the United Kingdom-----

I thank the Taoiseach. His time is up. I am sorry.

I can deal with that later.

I refer to the ongoing restrictions in maternity hospitals. Needless to say, everyone supports necessary restrictions, but mothers and families were understandably shocked when restrictions allowed socialising in pubs but they still had to go through labour alone, fathers could not attend the births of their own children and women sometimes received tragic news alone, messaging their partners in car parks. This is not to mention the fact that this was literally a postcode lottery; there was absolutely no consistency across hospitals. The guidelines on restrictions in maternity hospitals I am continuously given date back to September. The situation has changed significantly since then, especially with the vaccine roll-out for front-line workers. When can families expect new updates? Can the Taoiseach assure them that this time they will be considered a priority for the Government in respect of any restrictions going forward?

The first major point I will make is that public health advice is what dictates and determines the approach within hospitals, and clinical guidance has been uppermost in influencing decisions. We have made representations to the HSE. We have made the point that many Deputies have articulated recently in respect of this issue. We understand the trauma involved for mothers and partners in respect of the experience of giving birth, particularly in very difficult circumstances, when the outcome may not be as anticipated. That can be very traumatic. Any changes in the future will be guided by clinical and public health advice. The Deputy is correct that the situation has improved very significantly within hospitals. Infection among health workers has plummeted as a result of the vaccination programme. That will give us greater confidence in doing things in hospitals into the future.

The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is looking for a waiver of pre-legislative scrutiny of the residential tenancies Bill, in which he intends to extend the enhanced Covid protections for tenants in arrears, but it is not clear whether it will keep those protections for other tenants where they face eviction on grounds of sale or refurbishment. I have cited on numerous occasions here the plight of tenants in Dún Laoghaire who have always paid their rent but in respect of whom a ruthless vulture fund is moving to evict them immediately these restrictions are lifted. I am looking for clarity and appealing to the Taoiseach to ensure that the enhanced protections for tenants are not just on the grounds of arrears but are also maintained for others facing eviction in the context of the pandemic.

The legislation is very necessary because it will continue, as the Deputy says, enhanced protections for many tenants and has proven to be effective. That protection needs to be extended, and I will engage with the Minister in respect of his capacity to deal with issues Deputy Boyd Barrett has articulated, bearing in mind what is and is not legally possible. We want to get these protections extended, and it is necessary to get this legislation through because it is good legislation and has proven to be effective in protecting tenants in difficult situations.

In February 2017, Tipperary town primary schools were overlooked for inclusion in the DEIS programme.

This omission was blatantly wrong. After a determined campaign to highlight the injustice, the Department of Education yielded to pressure and agreed to appoint an inspector to review the circumstances of all five primary schools. After extensive engagement with all relevant stakeholders and a thorough examination of statistics and facts, the inspector filed a comprehensive report. The report concluded that levels of deprivation were extremely high, and that no other town in Ireland of a similar size had as high a level of disadvantage. In response to a glaring deficit in supports, an interim package of resources was agreed by the Department and implemented across the five schools. That package remains in place. However, these schools are awaiting confirmation of full band 1 DEIS status, which, I understand, cannot be granted until the national review of all schools is complete. When will this national review be finalised and published to include the Tipperary schools for full DEIS status?

First, I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. I know the Deputy and his county colleagues were extremely disappointed in 2017, when no primary school in Tipperary town attained DEIS status, which on the face of it is difficult to comprehend at one level. The concerns have been made clear in this Chamber regarding the necessity for this provision, given significant levels of social disadvantage and deprivation. I want to acknowledge those concerns and to say that work is under way within the Department. I spoke to the Minister for Education yesterday and she is committed to revising the DEIS programme and to broaden its inclusion. The work on the DEIS identification model is under way and is nearing completion. A detailed analysis of school enrolment data, using the latest data available from the 2016 census, has been carried out by the Department. That work will continue and the Minister is committed to doing it as soon as possible.

This issue concerns intern doctors in Clonmel, many of whom were employed last year in the teeth of the Covid pandemic. There were 19 of them. Ten of them are to be let go shortly. Last year, in the middle of the Covid pandemic, all the newly-qualified intern doctors were employed in Irish hospitals. This year, in 2021, none of them are going to be taken on, meaning that many of them, both international and Irish interns, will have to go abroad for work. South Tipperary General Hospital, Clonmel is under pressure, and losing these ten interns out of a cohort of 19 is devastating, on top of the closure of St. Brigid's hospital. The Taoiseach gave a commitment in the House five weeks ago, that he would meet Councillor Kieran Bourke, the action committee and some of the staff in Carrick-on-Suir. Did the Taoiseach have that meeting? What is he going to do about the HSE taking away these 10 doctors in the middle of a pandemic?

First, extraordinary efforts were made last year in recruiting way above and beyond in respect of interns and non-consultant hospital doctors. It was never envisaged that those levels would be sustained across the country. However, I will ask the HSE about the hospital at Clonmel and the issues there because I accept the Deputy's point that the hospital is under pressure. I have not had any meeting yet in relation to St Brigid's hospital. I will certainly pursue the issue of the interns.

A worker, who has been working on the front line and at the coalface of the Covid-19 pandemic since last March, thereby risking her health and well-being, has contacted me. She told me that she and her colleagues had been put on the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, without consultation. We know that under that scheme, an employer experiencing a minimum of 25% decline in turnover can apply for a worker to be kept on the books on the net pay that they were on before. The employer can also claim up to 70% of that waged salary. Like all other workers in the McCauley's pharmacy group, this worker was contacted by the Revenue in January to notify her that she had a tax obligation on that net pay. She has been told that she owes €2,000 in tax to Revenue, which amounts to three weeks' pay for that worker. No worker should be forced to pay this tax liability. It should be paid by the employer within the scheme. I ask the Taoiseach to let employers know that they are obliged to pay this tax for their workers, and it is not for the workers to pay.

I ask the Deputy to forward me the details of the case in order that I can get a detailed response in respect of the issues she has raised on that individual case.

Holy Family National School, Rathmore, is a thriving national school in east Kerry. I am glad that it has got the green light for an extension as it is very tight on room. However, it is seeking 0.16 of an acre from the HSE, which is sited next door. I ask the Taoiseach, the Minister for Education and the Minister for Health to come together and give this required amount of land to the management of Holy Family National School. As I have outlined, it is a tiny school and the numbers are going up and up. They need the space and they need it urgently.

I will pursue that issue. I have no doubt but that the Minister for Education will also be dealing with this. I am not clear on the importance of that HSE piece of land. However, I am familiar with cases across the country where the HSE has provided pieces of land to enable school extensions and so on. We would be very happy to see if we can help the national school at Rathmore in respect of this issue.

Allocations for the urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, have been announced this week and Drogheda, the largest town in the country outside of the major cities, got absolutely no support. It got zero marks, practically, in its application. Of the 70-odd applications, Drogheda is in the lowest cohort, in about 66th place. That is entirely unacceptable. There is a huge crisis of confidence in local government, both locally and nationally, as a result of this decision. The assessment of the Drogheda application must be published immediately, today. We will hold accountable the people who are responsible for that. It is most important that the Taoiseach meets the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, the Secretary General of his Department and the CEO of the Louth County Council, Joan Martin, to ensure that the €200 million left in that fund is accounted for and that a fair and adequate proportion of it is spent in Drogheda. What has happened here is entirely unacceptable, shocking and shameful. This is not the first or second but the third time this has happened. People in Drogheda are very angry and are up in arms. The Taoiseach must act now.

This road has been in the planning for 15 long years. Three applications for funding were made and all three applications were refused funding. This week, the Minister refused funding once again. This is the very same Minister who came electioneering to Drogheda in 2019, called a public meeting, called for the road to be funded, said it was a matter of urgency, that it was part of the northern environs plan and was a critical piece of infrastructure. What did we see from him this week? The usual reverting to sleeveen politics and the rejection of the application once again. This decision must be overturned. We will not take it lying down. If the Taoiseach is sick of me raising this issue more than 20 times, he should get used to it, because I am not letting this go. How dare he turn his back on Drogheda once again? We have been looking for this funding for 15 years. Is there an appeals process? There had better be, because we are going to appeal this decision.

I thank the Deputies for raising the issue. Louth County Council did have a successful €7.5 million application in Dundalk for the St. Nicholas Quarter and Backlands regeneration project under the latest funding announcement for the URDF and that should be acknowledged. The Government is committed to Drogheda, and we understand the disappointment with the application which was not successful. The application was not recommended by the project advisory board, which made the recommendations. That advisory board is made up of civil servants with specialist expertise in the various sectoral areas, and representatives from other Departments and Government agencies, as appropriate. The board used the criteria of the URDF to make its assessment and sent its recommendations to the Minister. The Minister has held back money from the fund to address unsuccessful applications that can be strengthened. It is critical for the local authority to re-engage fully with this process.

The Minister has committed to re-engaging with Deputies O'Dowd and Munster and other local representatives, as well as the local authority, to improve the submission or identify alternative funding routes that may be more appropriate.

Thank you, Taoiseach. The time is up.

The URDF has specific criteria-----

We cannot go on any further on this matter.

We have a vaccine supply problem in this country, across Europe and across the world. We heard earlier today on "Morning Ireland" about the possibility in certain parts of the world that the roll-out could take until 2023 or 2024. With the difficulty that exists in regard to the new strains and the economic damage that is happening, this is utterly unacceptable and could lead to a cost of trillions. What interaction has the Taoiseach and the European Commission had with companies with a view to using the capacity that exists in Europe and elsewhere in the world? What we want to see is for companies to forgo intellectual rights and know-how. That is the best-case scenario. Either way, if we have capacity across the world in the pharmaceutical industry, it needs to be used. This is far too important an issue to do otherwise. It is life and death. I am asking the Taoiseach what interaction he and the European Commission have had with companies on this matter.

Night after night, the people of Ireland are being subjected to the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, in front of them on their screens, like Comical Ali, saying that the administration of the vaccine is going fine. Everybody knows it is not. A €1 billion per month unmitigated disaster is happening in this country. I know of surgeries in my constituency that will not have the vaccine for over-85s until the end of next week. One surgery has not got a date for delivery as of yet. Every single month that the Government fails on the roll-out of the vaccine is costing billions of euro. It is pushing people into poverty and keeping shops and restaurants closed. What efforts has the Government really made in regard to the procurement of the vaccine, in addition to the European supply chain? Why is there a cap-tipping deference to the European Union in this country all the time? It cost us billions of euro ten years ago and it is costing us billions of euro now.

The Taoiseach will be talking to the new US President, Joe Biden, for St. Patrick's Day. Will he ask Mr. Biden to help Ireland? We need to get outside of the EU process and get the vaccines into this country. All of the Irish people in America will help us. All the Taoiseach has to do is open his mouth and say, "Please support the Irish", and they will do it.

Arising from yesterday's health committee meeting, it would appear that there are obvious fears in the HSE that it will not be possible to meet targets, as already indicated, and that the situation could change dramatically for the worse as time goes by. I support the other speakers in raising the urgent necessity to seek out other ways and means of providing an adequate vaccine supply in the shortest possible time in order to be able, at least, to compete with our neighbours and assure our citizens that we are in a serious position in terms of dealing with this issue.

It is quite evident to the people of this country that we have a vaccine supply issue. Every other Deputy is in the same position as me in having issues to raise in this regard. When are gardaí and shop workers going to be vaccinated? What about the people living on the islands off west Cork, including Bere Island, Cape Clear Island, Sherkin Island, Long Island and the many other islands? There are elderly people living there who cannot come off the island. These are people in their 80s and 90s and they need to be shown the respect of at least informing them when they will be vaccinated. Can the Taoiseach give us some clarity in this regard today?

A range of Deputies spoke on this issue. First of all, I have to say to Deputy Tóibín that he should withdraw his remark. It is completely unfounded and the level of his invective is just not warranted. It is not proportionate, it is not balanced and it is doing a disservice. The vaccination programme in this country is working.

It is not working.

The Taoiseach, without interruption.

It is having a very significant impact on those who are being vaccinated. We have reached those cohorts who are most vulnerable to severe illness and death. The over-85s, by and large-----

(Interruptions).

Come off it, please, Deputy Tóibín.

I ask the Deputy, please, not to interrupt the Taoiseach.

The Deputy should stop the blackguarding on this issue. I want to make the point that there are a number of strands of thought that have emerged. I will come back to Deputy Ó Murchú's question because he has made a valid point in the global sense. A total of 95% of everything that comes into the country is being injected into people within the week. That is a fact.

In terms of the global supply issue, there are three major continents that are manufacturing vaccines. In Asia, we have China, and then there is Europe and the United States. There is no magic tree out there that we can pick vaccines off. That is an illusion. I spoke to the UK Prime Minister and we talked about vaccines. He volunteered to me that he would love to help Ireland but his first priority is to get his entire people vaccinated. That is what he said. Yet, we have people jumping up and down saying we should ask Boris Johnson and he will give us his surplus. He does not have surplus vaccines to give to Ireland right now.

We cannot get into a lengthy debate on this matter.

We have asked the German Government whether it has reserves of AstraZeneca to give, because there were articles written saying that it was not using those vaccines. We got a very quick response from the German Government saying that it will be using all of its AstraZeneca supplies. The key to this, going back to Deputy Ó Murchú's point, is the global situation. If we do not vaccinate countries in Africa and all the other countries, ultimately, we risk the arrival of new variants in the fullness of time.

Thank you, Taoiseach. We cannot go into this issue any further.

The European Union has been very committed in this regard and has provided very substantive funding to COVAX and other initiatives on that front.

I thank the Central Bank for its dogged pursuit of the truth in the case of the Davy scandal, despite the scorched earth policy of the senior management of the company in trying to hide everything from its own compliance personnel and, indeed, from the Central Bank. We have to take steps now to restore the reputation of the financial services industry in Ireland and to protect the remaining jobs in Davy. There are hundreds of people who had absolutely nothing to do with what happened and who depend on the financial services industry. It is very important for Ireland, particularly after Brexit. Will the Taoiseach commit to ensuring that the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel will work to expedite legislation on the senior executive accountability regime, SEAR, in the Department of Finance?

Does the Taoiseach not find it extraordinary that 16 individuals in Davy made a substantial gain back in 2014 on the same Anglo Irish Bank bonds on which many ordinary people lost their life savings? The director of finance in the Central Bank told the finance committee yesterday that she could find no evidence of criminal activity in this matter. How do we reconcile a situation whereby if someone goes to a shop and steals a slice of bread, it is a criminal activity, but stealing and making money off Anglo Irish Bank bonds is not? Is the Taoiseach happy that we have the fully story on Davy? Is he satisfied that the law is sufficient to discourage white-collar crime? What measures will he put in place in this regard? The Taoiseach needs to seek a direct briefing from the Central Bank on this matter.

Following on from Deputy Carroll MacNeill's point, we are still waiting to see the legislation on the SEAR. I understand it is with the Attorney General. Does the Taoiseach believe that this scheme, which is overdue to be introduced, should extend to all aspects of the financial services sector, not just front-facing roles? It is crucially important to ensuring that transparency and accountability are restored in the sector and that we can continue developing the sector and maintaining its global reputation.

On the same issue, I take this opportunity to express my complete outrage at what has happened at Davy. It is particularly concerning, as referred to by Deputy O'Donnell, that what happened in the company came in the wake of financial scandals that rocked this country just a few short years before. It is absolutely unacceptable and it is completely disgusting to the many people who worked hard and lost a lot of money in recent years. I emphasise how important it is that this matter is treated with the utmost importance and given huge attention at the top level in Government. Such activity cannot be allowed to continue in this country and it cannot happen again.

This is something that goes to the heart of what people have been suffering for the past ten or 15 years. The Taoiseach is well aware of that. We bailed out the banks and got into such financial crisis in this country because of the very type of shenanigans that appear to have been going on in Davy. As well as the investigation that is being carried out by the Central Bank, will there be a criminal investigation into what happened here? Clearly, the individual at the start of this, who engaged Davy to provide a service, was not provided with that service. That is the first point. Second, the 16 people who went off and made this arrangement for themselves clearly did so with some kind of inside knowledge that they were going to make a large sum of money on it.

To any ordinary citizen looking in from the outside, there is a clear issue of fraud. In any other circumstances, there would be a criminal investigation. Will such an investigation happen?

I thank the Deputies for raising the issue. As I said earlier, what happened in Davy's is absolutely unacceptable. It was a disgrace and should not have happened. It has damaged not just the company but also, again, the reputation of financial services in Ireland. No stone will be left unturned in the context of strengthening the legislative regime. The Minister for Finance has made it clear - he presented to the Cabinet on this matter yesterday - that the SEAR legislation will be brought forward and that the heads of it are nearly ready. We will do everything we possibly can. I cannot prejudice in my commentary any further investigations that may take place in respect of this matter. The behaviour was not acceptable by any standard.

I want to refer to the national broadband scheme. A problem arises whereby people are in neither the intervention area nor the blue area. The blue areas are the areas that are supposed to be serviced already by existing companies and networks, such as the metropolitan area networks. The problem is that the maps show households and businesses that are supposed to be in the covered areas, mainly on the edges of villages and towns. I have constituents in Laois and Offaly who cannot get a broadband service from a private provider. I have raised this matter with National Broadband Ireland and the Minister and a stock reply keeps coming back. What I am trying to get across to the Taoiseach is that many of the affected individuals are self-employed and are trying to run small businesses. They have children who are home-schooling and they cannot get a broadband service anywhere. This needs to be resolved. The broadband scheme, as constructed, is flawed and there are flaws with the maps. It is not good enough for National Broadband Ireland to write back to me saying it is tough luck. What we need is action. We need to get broadband to houses, businesses and farms across the midlands, including Laois and Offaly, and the rest of the country.

There is a major problem with the lack of adequate broadband in Laois–Offaly. I have been contacted by many frustrated constituents and farming families who have to do most of their business online. With children at home now trying to engage in online learning, particularly those in examination years, this is not adequate. It is not good enough. There is a serious problem. Bearing in mind that Laois–Offaly is undergoing a very unjust transition, which I have called it from the start, and that investment is needed in the constituency, the problem is setting us back and putting us on the back foot. I call today for Laois–Offaly to be prioritised for the proper, effective and efficient roll-out of broadband as urgently as possible.

Counties such as Kerry are now rightfully being seen for all the positive things that they can be seen for. Working from home because of the pandemic has highlighted the fact that so much business can be done at home. Despite all we have to offer in Kerry, however, the one thing we are lacking is proper broadband throughout the rural areas of the county. I ask the Taoiseach to ensure that the Government realises the importance of broadband. It is important now to have proper broadband in one's home or for one's business. It is every bit as important as electricity, water and sewerage facilities. With broadband, people will be able to do their work and business successfully from home, be it in the private sector or any other. We have a lot a lot to offer, but the provision of proper broadband is required.

Deputy Stanley has raised an important issue. The problem is that the homes designated as blue, while officially regarded as being in receipt of a broadband service, are not actually getting it. The national broadband contract is very clear on this. If people cannot get a commercial service, they are entitled, under the national broadband plan, to a service under the national broadband intervention arrangement. This needs to be recorded and reported by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment so the map can be altered. The difficulty is that there is a lack of information from the Department informing affected individuals and communities that if they report the problem, the map can be altered to reflect the need for intervention in their areas.

The Government is very committed to the roll-out of broadband. Obviously, broadband is essential, particularly in enabling people, including the self-employed and businesses more generally, to conduct their work. It is essential for those who are working at home and students who are studying. I am referring to the nature and importance of connectivity. I will relay to the Minister what has been said here by Deputies, including on communication from the Department on areas designated on the blue map.

The Government is particularly committed to very significant investment in Laois–Offaly, not just through just transition but also through other measures, including through the use of State agencies, Bord na Móna and other bodies to channel investment to Offaly and Laois with a view to future economic development.