Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Feicimid go bhfuil sonraí foilsithe ag "RTÉ Investigates" maidir le bailiúchán sonraithe de chuid na Roinne Sláinte ar pháiste a raibh uathachas agus míchumais fhoghlamtha eile orthu le smál a chur orthu agus ar a gcuid teaghlach. Bhí na teaghlaigh sin ag troid trí na cúirteanna agus le modhanna eile chun seirbhísí mar is ceart a fháil dá gcuid páistí. Tá an scéal seo scanrúil agus mí-eiticiúil. Is náire é gur tharla sé agus tá ceisteanna le freagairt ag an Rialtas maidir leis. Cad a bhí ar eolas aige agus cén uair?

This morning the "RTÉ Investigates" programme published shocking revelations stemming from the disclosures of a whistleblower in the Department of Health. This relates to children with autism whose families have fought to ensure their children got proper access to services to which they should have been entitled. Unbeknown to these families and the children, the Department of Health had been gathering information on them for many years, specifically to defend legal cases the families considered bringing to vindicate the rights of the children's access to services.

It is truly and absolutely shocking that this is and was going on. It highlights an attitude of suspicion and contempt towards families that is simply unjustifiable. This information on file in the Department's database includes detailed medical and personal information that any right-thinking person would believe is covered by doctor-patient confidentiality. Instead of assisting families in accessing proper services for children with a disability or a learning difficulty, we had instead the Department of Health playing private investigator, trying to dig up dirt on parents who had already been through the mill. The information that was gathered is clearly very sensitive, intimate and, very often, completely unrelated to any litigation. It is at the very least invasive and disproportionate. In reality it is dishonest, totally unethical and possibly illegal. It represents a monumental breach of trust.

The database in which this information is stored, despite its incredible sensitivity, is available to a whole division in the Department of Health for access. It includes items such as reports from schools, details of psychiatric consultations involving children, and videos of children in a distressed state. It is absolutely alarming that personal information, which parents gave in confidence to their child's doctor at a time of family crisis, would be collated by the Department of Health in this manner to be used against the families as a tactic in litigation to prevent families getting the additional supports they sought.

The severity of this is, quite frankly, unquantifiable. There are many questions we all need answered. We know the whistleblower in question raised concerns with bosses in the Department of Health. Does the Tánaiste know when that was? Who was the Minister with responsibility for health at the time? Was that Minister informed of the fact a protected disclosure was made by the whistleblower last year?

This practice has clearly gone on for many years in the Department of Health. As a former Minister, did the Tánaiste know this practice was ongoing and the Department was gathering this type of sensitive information, which it had no right to access in the first place? It told doctors not to tell families that this information was being provided to the Department. Was the Tánaiste aware of this practice when he was Taoiseach? Was he made aware of it? Will the internal examination by the Department of Health into this practice be made public? Is this practice of gathering private information, none of which could be considered relevant to possible litigation, still ongoing in the Department?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter, which I read about this morning on the RTÉ news website. What is recounted on the website this morning is worrying and, as the Deputy notes, it relates to very sensitive and private matters affecting individuals with disabilities and their families. I do not know all the facts but I will watch the "RTÉ Investigates" programme tonight. I am sure the Department of Health will want to make a statement on the matter, if it has not done so already, and it will want to reply to any questions or concerns raised.

I understand only from reading the RTÉ website this morning that a protected disclosure was made on the matter in 2020. Personally, I have no recollection of being briefed on this. The Deputy mentioned that I am a former Minister for Health, but that was four or five years ago for a period of a year and a half and I do not have any personal recollection of this at all. Disability was a delegated matter, as the Deputy knows. I would have to double-check any records in that regard but I have no personal recollection of it at the moment.

This practice has been ongoing for well over a decade and the Tánaiste's response is inadequate. The Department of Health has stated this is normal practice. How could it be normal practice for psychiatric reports with intimate details of a family's situation where a child has autism to be shared with the Department of Health without the consent or knowledge of the parents? How could it be normal practice for a video of a child in a most vulnerable position to be held in the Department of Health to be accessed by any individual in the Department? This simply cannot stand.

I have asked a number of questions about the publication of the internal investigation but there is a need for an independent investigation of the ethical and legal rationale for all of this. It needs to be undertaken urgently and it should not drag on. Does the Tánaiste agree that an inquiry similar in scope and duration to the Scally inquiry into the CervicalCheck screening programme is now needed, encompassing both the Department of Health, the Department of Education and the HSE? It is clear this must be properly investigated.

I accept what the Deputy says; my response is inadequate, because I do not know the facts of this. Like I say, I became aware of the matter by reading about it on the RTÉ website this morning. It appears to be a serious matter and questions will be asked and answered. I am not aware of the facts at this stage and it would be inappropriate for me to offer further comment, having not heard from the Minister for Health, the Minister of State with responsibility for disabilities or the Department at this stage. I agree this appears to be a very serious matter. I will be watching the programme tonight to find out more.

After 12 weeks of severe level 5 lockdown, the daily Covid-19 case numbers remain stubbornly high. Leaving aside the kite-flying that has been entirely unhelpful in recent weeks, the question for the Government is what exact steps it will take to address this problem to drive down numbers and allow some level of opening society and the economy.

The vast majority of people have severely restricted their movements and lives in what can only be described as a major national effort to limit the spread of the virus. However, increasingly, there is a sense that the Government has not played its part or done as it promised.

I will raise a number of key actions required and actions promised by Government. I seek the Tánaiste's response and the reasons for the Government's inaction across these various areas. First, why has the Government not addressed the long-standing issues with the under-resourcing of public health doctors? Every time I have raised this over the past 15 months, there have been promises but the matter remains unresolved. Public health doctors are critical in a pandemic. It is indefensible that this has not been resolved. Related to this is the lack of retrospective tracing to establish where exactly transmission is taking place. It is a basic thing and it beggars belief that it is not being done.

The issue of travel is arguably the biggest failure in the response to Covid. People have been instructed that they must only travel for essential reasons yet, inexplicably, the Government has stopped asking international travellers about this since 7 February. That week, 46% of people were travelling for non-essential reasons. Since then, we have no idea why people are travelling. On so-called home quarantining, the gardaí have only just established pilot projects in six divisions for enforcement purposes. Mandatory hotel quarantining was finally introduced this week. Who exactly is responsible for security? Is it the hotels, the security companies, the gardaí or the Defence Forces?

On vaccinations, when will the Government publish the detailed plan for the mass vaccination programme? What is the revised vaccination target for the end of the first quarter this year?

I thank the Deputy. I will do my best to answer as many questions as I can and, where I do not know the answer, I will ask the Minister for Health to correspond with the Deputy directly.

We are approaching 4,700 deaths in this State of people who died with Covid. We have reached the point where as many people have died from Covid-19 this year as did in all of last year. That is an extraordinary statistic, when one thinks about it. These are not just statistics but people with grieving families. That statistic demonstrates how serious the B.1.1.7. variant is and how different it is to the Wuhan strain or the wild strain that we dealt with last year. It perhaps demonstrates that getting down to low figures like ten, 50 or even 100 per day is not a prospect in the way it was last year because the virus has mutated and is more transmissible and deadly than the original wild strain. Despite the enormous efforts of the Irish people, who are doing all the right things, we have got stuck around 500 or 600 cases per day and it is hard to see how we will get much lower than that.

What are the things we are doing to attempt to reduce the numbers? We have increased border biosecurity. It is now the strictest in the European Union, with mandatory hotel quarantine starting tomorrow for people coming from more than 30 countries and anyone coming without a negative test from any country, including non-essential and essential travel. We will add many countries to that list in the coming weeks, once we have the system up and running. We have started walk-in PCR testing for people who have no symptoms in areas of high incidence, five of them to start-----

Will the Tánaiste answer some of the questions I asked?

The first question the Deputy asked was what we were doing to bring down Covid and that is the question I am answering. We are speeding up the vaccine roll-out. We have given more than 700,000 vaccines at this stage. We expect to receive more than 1 million vaccines by the end of this month but they will not all be in people's arms. It will probably be around 800,000, and another 1 million or so in April. We will have the report on antigen testing soon and that will be used in outbreaks in other places like work places. We are increasing our testing and tracing capacity and there has never been any restriction on resources in terms of taking on contact tracers or people in public health departments. We have always said to NPHET, the Department of Health and the HSE that this is probably the cheapest thing we could do. It much cheaper than the pandemic unemployment payment or the wage subsidy scheme to take on public health staff and contact tracers. There has never been a restriction on that.

To answer the question on public health doctors, I believe this should be a consultant-led service and negotiations are under way between the Government and the Irish Medical Organisation, IMO, about that. Should the IMO wish to refer those discussions to the Workplace Relations Commission or the Labour Court, both of which are under my remit, we would be happy to hear the case. Let us not be too simplistic about this. There are a lot of public health doctors in Scotland, England and Wales, many of them consultants. Yet their death rate and case rates are way higher than here. Let us not suggest that will be a silver bullet.

I think the Tánaiste was really disingenuous in the answer he gave there. I asked him specific questions about things the Government had promised to do to play its part in the response to Covid. They were on things we have been through umpteen times and he did not answer a single one of them. How can he expect the public to stay with the Government and to stay the course when the Government is not doing what it said it would do? I listed all of those things.

The Tánaiste referred to the new variants. They are the big threat and they change everything. However, they have been allowed into this country by the failure of the Government to address the issue of travel. There was a basic question on people's reason for travel and the Government stopped asking people that. How can people have faith in the Government if it will not address the things it has promised to do for the last 12 months? The Government has to do much better. People will just give up on this unless the Government plays its part.

I answered the Deputy's question. I said we had increased border security to have the strictest biosecurity in the European Union, introduced walk-in PCR testing for people with no symptoms in five parts of the country and accelerated the vaccine roll-out. Antigen testing will be coming into play and we are increasing our tracing capacity.

What the Deputy said about the B.1.1.7. variant is a bit disingenuous. Unfortunately, it would have inevitably come into the country. It does not just come through ports and airports. It also comes in, and came in, through Northern Ireland, as did the Spanish strain which contributed to the second wave. Scotland brought in mandatory hotel quarantine for all arrivals over a month ago and has found that it has not been a silver bullet for it. Its case numbers are similar to ours and it has had the same issues as us in relation to a land border.

I want to talk about the Connecting Ireland document, which aims to connect Cork, Waterford, Limerick and Galway and to provide an alternative to the M20 and M25 motorways, which the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, believes will cost a fortune and is too expensive.

The Government's vision for Ireland 2040 is to achieve connectivity and balanced regional development. Our regional cities are important. We are told Cork, Limerick and Waterford cities are instrumental to this new vision. The cities need to be connected to achieve economic growth and to access ports and airports. Tipperary County Council, Waterford City & County Council and Kilkenny County Council have made submissions on the upgrading of the N24 to motorway standard as part of the Ireland 2040 vision. Submissions were made by Tipperary County Council on the mid-term review of capital projects and the voluntary Cork-Limerick Alliance Group also made submissions. It is important these people are listened to. We can get to Cahir from Limerick and on to Cork or Dublin with a maximum delay of nine to 12 minutes. It is an investment of €3.8 billion to undertake that development as opposed to €10.3 billion in capital expenditure to do the M25 and the M20 motorways, not to mention the damage and impact on the environment and everything else. It brings negligible travel time differences and transport 2040 goals will be met in a fraction of the time.

There will a greater return on investment on the M8, which is totally underused and was probably at 50% capacity pre-Covid. It will create regional access to the motorway infrastructure and lead to fewer cars on the N20 and N25. Faster port access is vital, considering Brexit and related issues. Connecting the ports of Galway and Foynes and on to Rosslare and Waterford is vital with Brexit.

This document is lovely. I ask the Tánaiste to look at an independent evaluation of the proposal for the M25 to go from Limerick to Cork. We can do it for a fraction of the cost. Cahir is the central crossroads in Munster, certainly, and almost in Ireland. We could have a digital hub for heavy industries and, indeed, all kinds of industry. The town is adjacent to two motorways, namely, the M8 and M24.

We do not want another children's hospital that started out at €600 million, is now almost at €3 billion, is still not built and has had huge delays almost a half-decade later than delivery. This can be delivered. The people, energy, enthusiasm and expertise are out there. They are not all confined to Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, and the Department. People have good ideas that should be listened to. Connect Limerick to Cahir and on to bypass Clonmel, Carrick-on-Suir and on to Waterford and Piltown in County Kilkenny, which is a notorious spot that has had several fatalities. Please go back and re-examine this before it is too late and try to develop this link. We will then have connectivity with Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Galway, which is very important.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. As he will be aware, Project Ireland 2040: National Development Plan 2018-2027 is currently under review. We expect to be in a position to publish the revised and updated national development plan in the summer, most likely in June or July. That will project out to 2030 in terms of the major infrastructure projects we intend to progress during that period.

It has been a long-standing objective of successive governments to connect all our cities by motorway or by high-quality road. We have made enormous progress in that regard in the last couple of decades. One thing we need to bear in mind, particularly taking into account the need for climate action, is that we need to now look at this in the round. Connecting cities can be done in two ways: by rail and by road. We need, therefore, to weigh up options in terms of closer and faster connections by rail as well as by road, and ideally both. We also need to bear in mind that when we progress these projects, it is not just about connecting the cities but also bypassing the towns along the way. If I understood him correctly, I believe the Deputy suggested that the link should be from Cahir to Limerick, and that could double as the link from Cork to Limerick. That is true, but it does nothing for Buttevant or Charleville, towns which are heavily congested and need to be bypassed and relieved of that traffic. There is also the issue of Foynes, Adare and Kilmallock, which are linked into road projects between Cork and Limerick, such as the Foynes to Limerick road which includes the Adare bypass.

All this, therefore, must be looked at in the round as we seek to review the national development plan. The programme for Government gives a clear commitment that new investment in transport will be split 2:1 in favour of public transport, with two thirds of the money going into public transport and one third going into new road developments. What is absolutely certain, however, is that there will not be enough money to do all the projects we would like, whether it is all the public transport projects in the cities or all the road projects in cities, towns and counties around Ireland. We will, therefore, need to make some choices.

I do not have any issue with those towns the Tánaiste mentioned in counties Cork and Limerick; they need bypasses. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, however, is in favour of smaller ring roads or smaller bypasses, not a huge motorway. The Tánaiste must look at the funding, which is staggering. It is €3.8 billion versus €10.3 billion. That is €3.8 billion to go from Limerick to Cahir and on to Waterford with connectivity back to Cork or Dublin against €10.3 billion to do the Cork-Limerick, and indeed, Cork-Waterford roads. It is a no-brainer with the impact on the environment and so forth. Of course, we have a reasonable rail service that needs to be upgraded. Certainly, however, this must be re-examined in this timely review because if we get connectivity to those cities, the people in those places mentioned by the Tánaiste - Adare and all the other towns - will have less and less traffic because all the heavy trucks will be gone.

Lastly and most importantly, Tipperary town is completely jammed with lorries. We must get the trucks out. There is extra traffic now because they are going to Rosslare instead of Dublin as a result of the issues with Brexit in different ports. Get the lorries out of those towns in order that people can live and breathe and have a nice town like Clonakilty, which we saw featured on a television programme recently. This could be done with a simple ring road, proper planning and by listening to people who have different and good ideas, which have also been also costed.

We will do that. We will listen to ideas and examine the different proposals people have to better connect our cities and bypass our towns. I absolutely agree with the Deputy. Tipperary town needs to be bypassed. It is really suffering and struggling and bears the weight of a lot of freight traffic. When I was Minister with responsibility for transport, I remember working very hard with the then Minister of State, Deputy Kelly, who is in the Chamber, to save those rail lines mentioned by the Deputy in Munster and County Tipperary and put forward a proposal for a one-way system or bypass for the town, which councillors decided against. It was their prerogative to do so. We now need to find a new solution for that town to make sure it gets bypassed. That in itself will help regenerate the town, which is desperately needed.

If the Tánaiste or I go to buy a car today and visit three different garages that sell the same car new, we will get a different price. If he looks at the television night after night, each of the different stores that sell food will be able to tell him how much he saves.

Funnily enough, however, it has been brought to my attention by individual farmers that, in January of this year, the beef price was €4 per kilo. In February, all of a sudden it dropped to €3.70 while the markets in Europe did not show a deterioration.

In fairness to the Irish Farmers' Journal, every week it has printed prices publicly, be they from the likes of Kepak, ABP Food Group, Meadow Meats, Charleville or Liffey Meats. Sixteen different factories, to name but a few, are printed in terms of price every week. Funnily enough, however, the same price is there for each and every one of them. As they say in rural Ireland, there is not a breadth of a hair between them, ironically enough, even though meat is going to different parts and different contracts, be it in Ireland or Europe. Drilling down into this very good information, especially around 7 February 2021, it shows heifers were quoted at €3.75 and cows at €2.90. Drilling down more, it is seen that in certain parts of the country, especially in the south, one factory ended up on the price of €4.48. A person does not have to be a mathematician to take out all the bonuses and see that the price would have to be around €4 to €4.10. Ironically enough, however, it has been stated to me from information I received that beef feedlots are what brought in a large amount of cattle that week. It appears, and I am saying it appears, that a small farmer will get one price but a person on a contract or who is a big operator will get a second price.

This needs to be investigated. The Government needs to do something about this. From talking to the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, all it will say is that it is concerned about the consumer. The farmer is the person who produces the goods, however. At the moment, the farmer is a price-taker. In 2019, the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, stated that it needed a full investigation. We need to bring in a regulator with teeth but also with powers to go in and take the computers and data. We are not accusing anybody of anything. What we are hearing on the ground, however, which generally is not too far wrong, is that something is amiss with what is going on in the beef sector. Will the Tánaiste work with the other parties to do this for the sake of agriculture and of the farmers?

I thank Deputy Fitzmaurice for raising this important issue. I know the price of beef and volatility of beef prices is causing enormous concern for farmers and rural communities throughout Ireland. The Government is aware that recent price volatility in the beef sector is causing huge difficulties. We are conscious that the sector is especially exposed due to factors such as Brexit and Covid-19 given its resilience and reliance on international trade and the food service and hospitality markets.

As the Deputy will be aware, prices for beef and other commodities are commercial matters which the Government has no role in fixing.

The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, and his Department are working to ensure that businesses and services to farmers can continue, keeping food and other processing facilities operational, as well as ensuring that payments and commercial activities necessary to protect farm incomes continue. The Department is also working to ensure Irish beef has access to as many high value markets around the world as possible. The Minister, Deputy McConalogue, and the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, are today having virtual meetings with customers in China, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

The nature of all markets is that prices will fluctuate, especially in the case of a market disturbance. That has been evidenced during the Covid crisis and also the uncertainty surrounding Brexit. The Government provides a range of financial aids to help beef farm incomes, as well as to support economic and environmental efficiency. These include the €300 million beef data and genomics programme. In addition to this, over the past two years more than €200 million was made available specifically to the beef sector, including the beef exceptional aid measure, BEAM, and beef environmental efficiency pilot, BEEP, schemes in 2019, along with the beef finisher payment and the beef environmental efficiency programme sucklers, BEEP-S, in 2020. In budget 2021, €85 million was allocated for specific supports for sustainable beef farming. This included more than €40 million for the extension of the beef data genomics programme during the transition period before the next Common Agricultural Policy. The beef sector efficiency pilot, with an allocation of €40 million, and the €5 million dairy beef measure were launched last week. Considerable financial supports are going from the Government to beef farmers and, to a lesser extent, dairy farmers.

The Minister has also secured €6 million in the budget for promotion of the suckler beef brand abroad. He continues to progress work around protected geographic indication status for Irish grass-fed beef. As trade Minister, I am working on that with him. We hope to extend this on an all-island basis in time.

Bord Bia's beef market tracker includes a comparison of the prime Irish beef composite price with a comparative export benchmark price based on weighted average of our key export markets. The tracker was put in place as a result of the work of the beef market task force and provides an additional measure of transparency for beef prices which is critically important.

I am not questioning the different schemes the Government has. I never mentioned them. I agree with the Tánaiste that prices fluctuate. Funnily enough, however, sterling was 91 pence to the euro and it then went back to 85 pence. That means it is better for the person buying in England. The difference between an animal in Ireland and an animal killed in England was €200. Today, if one brought what are called cull cows to mart where the same agents would be buying for the factories, one will actually get more per kilo in the mart. They are still bringing them into the factory at the price the farmer was supposed to take.

Does the Tánaiste agree that it is rather unusual that there would not be as much as a cent between him and I, if I were a factory owner, right across the board in 16 different factories? It is as if someone has a magic wand over all of this. Is the Tánaiste prepared to introduce a regulator with teeth to look at what is going on in the beef sector?

The task force commissioned Grant Thornton to conduct a series of market transparency studies. At the most recent meeting of the task force in March, there was an update from Grant Thornton on its work. The Minister, Deputy McConalogue, attended the meeting where he expressed his concern with the manner in which factories informed farmers of recent price cuts, along with changes to breed bonuses and weight limits.

The programme for Government commits to the establishment of a national food ombudsman. This is ongoing and requires the drafting of a statutory instrument to transpose the unfair trading practices, UTP, directive before the deadline of May 2021. Legislation will then be required to establish the new office of the national food ombudsman, NFO. It is intended there will be a national consultation process on the functions of this new ombudsman prior to the primary legislation being enacted. The Minister is also considering how to include price transparency and reporting issues as part of its functions.

The short answer to the Deputy's question is "Yes". We are committed to establishing a national food ombudsman. Legislation will be required. That legislation can set out the powers and functions the new officer will have. I know the Deputy will want to engage with us on that.