An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

The House has agreed that for the duration of the Covid-19 emergency only, the rapporteur's report of the Business Committee will be taken as read. Arising from it, there are just two proposals to be considered. Is the proposal for dealing with Wednesday's business agreed to?

I will talk about the changes to Questions on Promised Legislation. I wrote to the Ceann Comhairle and I appreciated his reply explaining the changes are part of a pilot scheme that will go on until the end of the year when it will be discussed again. Our representatives on the Dáil reform committee and the Business Committee have opposed the changes from the beginning. It is an unfair system. We had dealt with the queuing and there was no issue. We had used a card system, which we thought was fair. The system rewarded a Deputy who was interested in getting up in the morning, going out and collecting his or her card early, and getting the opportunity to raise a question. The new system will reward the Government. It already has plenty of speaking slots and its representatives are failing to turn up for many of their allotted speaking times. We need to go back to the system that was there because it was fair to everybody. It was open to everybody to queue, submit a question and raise issues of considerable concern.

Thank you, Deputy.

I need to raise the issue of the rural regeneration fund today because there are no funds coming to west Cork again.

Sorry, Deputy.

The Taoiseach is going to get away-----

We cannot get into that matter.

Please do not then.

I am opposing the changes here today. I would appreciate it if other Deputies would do the same.

I point out that, after tortuous consideration, this proposal is being run on a trial basis until the end of term to see how it works.

Today is 21 April and the Dáil has sat for two full days in the month of April. That is outrageous. The Dáil is sitting two days a week now which means that for the whole of 2021, we have only two days a week to represent our constituents. In the middle of an economic, health and societal crisis, we have a part-time Dáil. That is no longer good enough. It is time that the Dáil returned to sitting three days a week so that we can fully hold the Taoiseach and Ministers to account and bring Private Members' Bills to the floor of the House.

That is not a matter for the Taoiseach. The Business Committee has agreed that we will move back to a three-day week. Considerable discussion has taken place on that. Those three-day sittings will be taking place as soon as is feasible.

I will comment on the same issue as Deputy Tóibín. The Deputy is a member of the Regional Independent Group. The Whip of that group is Deputy Naughten, a very able Whip. I have seen some political postings in recent days and I wish to make it clear that a presentation, which made it clear that the Dáil would return to a three-day week, was made to all Deputies last week. That is being worked on. It is a logistical challenge. I must be fair and say that was presented to all Deputies. It must be known to Deputy Tóibín's group. The call for the return of a full Dáil has been worked on by all groups and parties. The return will happen soon. I must be fair. It is fair enough when the Opposition challenges the Government but when we are working collegially to get this place back to a fair sitting, we must also be fair. That has been happening and we will return to a full Dáil soon, thanks to all of our efforts.

Question put: "That the proposal for Wednesday's sitting be agreed to".
The Dáil divided: Tá, 41; Níl, 3; Staon, 0.

  • Bruton, Richard.
  • Buckley, Pat.
  • Burke, Colm.
  • Butler, Mary.
  • Canney, Seán.
  • Cannon, Ciarán.
  • Chambers, Jack.
  • Cronin, Réada.
  • Dillon, Alan.
  • Duffy, Francis Noel.
  • Durkan, Bernard J.
  • Farrell, Alan.
  • Fitzpatrick, Peter.
  • Flaherty, Joe.
  • Gannon, Gary.
  • Gould, Thomas.
  • Griffin, Brendan.
  • Haughey, Seán.
  • Kelly, Alan.
  • Leddin, Brian.
  • Lowry, Michael.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • Martin, Micheál.
  • McAuliffe, Paul.
  • McDonald, Mary Lou.
  • Murphy, Paul.
  • O'Brien, Darragh.
  • O'Callaghan, Jim.
  • O'Dowd, Fergus.
  • O'Rourke, Darren.
  • O'Sullivan, Christopher.
  • O'Sullivan, Pádraig.
  • Ó Cathasaigh, Marc.
  • Ó Murchú, Ruairí.
  • Pringle, Thomas.
  • Quinlivan, Maurice.
  • Richmond, Neale.
  • Ring, Michael.
  • Ward, Mark.
  • Whitmore, Jennifer.
  • Wynne, Violet-Anne.

Níl

  • Collins, Joan.
  • Collins, Michael.
  • Healy-Rae, Michael.

Staon

Tellers: Tá, Deputies Brendan Griffin and Jack Chambers; Níl, Deputies Mattie McGrath and Michael Collins.
Question declared carried.

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

We move now to our new system of Questions on Promised Legislation. There is a minute for everyone. We will begin with the Sinn Féin leader.

Yesterday the Government signed off on an obscene €81,000 pay increase for a top civil servant which will see the incoming Secretary General in the Department of Health earning €292,000 a year, or ten times the salary of a nurse starting out on the front line fighting Covid. There was no process or rationale for this obscene pay hike. At the time the Government said it was necessary in order to attract the best and the brightest to apply for the post. Lo and behold, the best and brightest were there all along under its nose. This is a stroke, a try on and a kick in the teeth to workers right across the public and private sectors. The incoming Secretary General has now said he will temporarily waive the €81,000 pay hike, but the truth is that it should not be waived; it should be cancelled. This pay hike is obscenely wrong. I challenge the Taoiseach to withdraw it, and to do so immediately.

The selection of a person to fill the post of Secretary General in the Department of Health was an independent process, the Top-Level Appointments Committee, TLAC, process. It was open to international competition for anybody to apply, and quite a number of people applied. The person selected is experienced and has served in various capacities within the public service. He would be regarded as a senior experienced public servant. It was an independent selection process. Deputy McDonald should not cast aspersions on the individual implicitly, as she has done in the presentation she has made.

In respect of the health service more generally and other areas, salary increases have occurred. There was a view that we wanted to create a new situation in terms of An Garda Síochána, the HSE and health. We are determined to make a change in health that will be of a transformative kind in terms of our health service, not just for now but into the future at all levels of our health services, because that is required.

I want to ask the Taoiseach about community employment scheme supervisors, who do such fantastic work, and their pensions. In 2015 I and the then Minister, Deputy Brendan Howlin, left a piece of work that had to be concluded in order to provide payments and pensions to supervisors and assistants. That work was not progressed by the last Government. I note there was some support for our proposals from Fianna Fáil, which was in opposition at the time. In recent weeks, I heard that the Ministers, Deputies Michael McGrath and Heather Humphreys, have been progressing this. I note that the supervisors are very disappointed with what they have been offered. Can the Taoiseach outline to the House the current status of this? Will the issue be resolved? What will the supervisors be offered? What does the future hold for supervisors in terms of having a pension?

This is an issue about which we are very concerned. The Ministers, Deputies McGrath and Humphreys, have made progress on it. It has been an outstanding issue for a long time. It is an identified priority of ours to resolve this as best we can.

I would like to ask the Taoiseach about the Irish refugee relocation programme. Some 14 unaccompanied minors in Greece have been identified and, with the involvement of Tusla and gardaí, were to be relocated to Ireland. It now appears that the mission has been delayed. If the children are not brought to Ireland before the end of the month the relocation programme and, therefore, their access to safety and ability to come over will end. Can I get a commitment from the Taoiseach that he will ensure that the mission goes ahead? It is vitally important that these children are not let down. Families in Ireland are waiting for them and we need to do absolutely everything we can to make sure they are safe.

I agree with the Deputy that we should do everything we possibly can to make sure those children are protected and safe. I will engage with the respective agencies and Ministers to ensure that we can bring this to a satisfactory resolution. I will take the point on board.

The International Transport Federation, ITF, and Kitty Holland, writing in The Irish Times, have shone a light on the super exploitation taking place on fishing boats in Irish waters. Companies are routinely ignoring the laws around the atypical work permit scheme, instead preferring, in many cases, to have unregistered people working below the minimum wage in unsafe conditions. One indication of just how widespread this practice is is that there are only 189 live permits in the system for the 160 vessels registered with the scheme.

Who exactly is crewing these boats? Two of these, Egyptian workers, almost died when the FV Ellie Adhamh sank in March. They are now stranded without jobs or permits, without any income or without a way home. They have blown the whistle on the conditions in this sector. Multiple investigations are now taking place by different State agencies. Will the Taoiseach intervene to ensure these workers are able to access work and social protection payments while the investigations are ongoing?

I deplore the practice of employing workers in this manner, particularly not registering workers under the atypical working scheme and making sure workers get their full entitlements under the law. What happened here is very wrong. I read the reports about the two individuals whose lives were endangered but who, thankfully, were rescued. It is unacceptable. The investigations have to take place. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is aware of the case. It is a significant issue which the industry must deal with on its own terms but the investigating authorities will pursue the specifics of this case. The Minister for Justice is considering the wider issue of undocumented people in the country and will make proposals.

The programme for Government promised that healthcare would be a priority. It was promised that healthcare, in particular dental care, would be available to all citizens. I have been inundated with calls from constituents in Dundalk who are angry and frustrated because they cannot access dental care during the pandemic. The problem is particularly difficult for those in receipt of a medical card. They claim dentists are not accepting medical card holders for treatment. Will the Taoiseach give clarity on this? What measures will the Government take to ensure that every citizen, whether they have a medical card or not, can avail of and access dental care?

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue. I will refer the issue again and I will engage with the Minister for Health on it. The entitlements people, including medical card recipients, have must be honoured and fulfilled. I will pursue that.

I was contacted by a very good, decent and honest publican in Tipperary this morning who has business interruption insurance. His insurance broker told him that because his premises was not closed due to an outbreak in it that the insurance company would not cover it. This is outrageous. There is a pandemic. The Government gave an order to close all businesses and it closed. Insurance companies are now picking off businesses one-by-one. These are individual business people who are stressed and put to the pins of their collars. This person is being told it is because it was not proven that the transmission did not happen inside his pub but no one knows where transmissions are being spread. It is outrageous nit-picking. It is the wild west out there in insurance. Will the Government do something about it? I know the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, is trying but it is outrageous that the insurance companies can pick and choose, and write off individual publicans like that. It is just not acceptable.

I thank the Deputy for raising this. It is very stressful for individual business owners, in particular publicans. The insurance companies should honour their obligations and commitments in this regard. The Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, is engaged in this topic more generally. I do not have the specifics of the case which the Deputy identified but we will pursue the issue more broadly with the industry.

An oral hearing is under way on the planning application at the mother and baby home at Bessborough and the identification of graves. There are mother and baby homes across the country in every local authority area. Will the Government ask the local authorities to ensure they are protected under the county development plans so that potential burial sites can be identified and that future developments have to take cognisance of them and protect them?

I will speak to the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government in that regard because I think all burial grounds in mother and baby homes should be protected and no violation of those grounds should occur for any reason. I will engage with the Minister in terms of the local authorities.

Tomorrow is Earth Day, which is an opportunity to recognise, reflect and reaffirm our commitment on climate change and our commitments under the Paris Agreement. We have a responsibility to leave behind a better environment for our children. To do nothing to achieve that goal would be a dereliction of our collective responsibilities as parliamentarians to our citizens and our planet. I call on the Taoiseach to provide the supports necessary to develop research and development in Ireland which will, in turn, make us leading innovators in this field, to use our position on the international stage, both on the UN Security Council and within the EU, to be a voice for young people on this issue and to reach out to less fortunate nations, which are already struggling, and work with them to prevent the humanitarian catastrophe in developing nations. Given that the Climate Action and Low-Carbon Emissions Bill will reach Second Stage this afternoon, we should redouble our efforts in our legislative commitments.

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue and key priority for the Government, namely, the challenge of climate. Tomorrow is Earth Day and we can all do our bit. The Ceann Comhairle may look with fondness at the wild garden in the back lawn of Leinster House. I walked by it yesterday, just to have a look. I wrote to the Ceann Comhairle about this when in opposition. It has come on in leaps and bounds and is a very pleasurable sight. It illustrates the incremental steps we can collectively take to restore biodiversity and prevent its continued destruction and achieve more broadly our climate change agenda.

On the UN Security Council, Ireland has identified climate change as a significant security issue but also something that requires a global response. It is good to see countries, including our own, significantly increasing objectives and targets on this. It will be challenging but it is necessary for the generations to come.

In 2017 I wrote to the then Taoiseach asking for a Mulvey-style report to respond to community concerns in Ballymun around open drug dealing. While he declined and suggested this be done at local authority level, we went ahead and, as Ardmhéara Bhaile Átha Cliath, I commissioned a report which was recently circulated at the joint policing committee. I understand the Taoiseach has not yet received the report but I ask that when he does, he considers it fully and that the Government and agencies do likewise, and that a senior officials group be put in place to allow us to monitor its implementation. The concentration of the problem may be unique to Ballymun but it is a problem which impacts disadvantaged communities right across the country.

I thank Deputy McAuliffe for raising the issue. He is a long-time champion of specific and targeted initiatives to deal with disadvantage and drug dealing and to support communities more strongly in particular situations. I look forward to receiving the report. I have asked officials in my Department to look more broadly at this issue with a view to auditing existing services and identifying areas where we could introduce targeted initiatives such as the old RAPID programme, and also ensure there is a cross-departmental approach to enhancing the life experiences of people in communities that are under pressure from this kind of activity. I will come back to the Deputy and the House when we have further details on that.

I wish to raise the issue of school investment. The Taoiseach will be fairly familiar with east Cork and the problems we have with school places and, in particular, the more than 50 children with special needs who have no school places for September. I seek the Taoiseach's commitment that no child will be left behind when it comes to school places in east Cork or to school transport. I acknowledge the Taoiseach met people from the Cork ETB and some principals some weeks ago, but I want to get a commitment because it is putting immense stress on pupils and parents too.

I met with principals recently. The Deputy's constituency colleagues, Deputies James O'Connor, Stanton and Sherlock, have also raised these issues consistently.

Two issues arise, the first being school enrolment at second level in east Cork because the area is probably the fastest growing in the county. A substantial investment programme, probably one of the largest ever for east Cork, will be delivered by the Government in a number of weeks. It will provide for new schools but, in the meantime, a number of interim projects in existing schools have also to be developed because of all of those schools are at maximum capacity.

On special education, there was good agreement last week whereby we secured an additional 60 places in Cork for children with special needs. I am very conscious of this matter. It is a priority of mine and we need to do more to make sure that, in the future, families will not have to go through lengthy ordeals to secure places for their children.

I was very concerned about the lack of availability and affordability of housing in Cavan. There are virtually no properties available to rent privately and the few that are available are not affordable for most families, even with the housing assistance payment, if accepted by the landlords. This highlights the absolute need for social and affordable housing to be built.

Cavan County Council had an opportunity recently to have 24 social houses constructed in Cootehill on council land but five of the six councillors in the municipal area voted against the Part 8 arrangement that would have allowed construction to proceed. The five who voted against the development included two from Fianna Fáil, two from Fine Gael and one from Aontú, and the only person who voted in favour was a Sinn Féin councillor. Twenty-four houses in Cootehill would have made a huge difference to those seeking housing in the area, many of whom have been on the housing list for years and living in very poor conditions. The residents of a private housing estate objected to the proposal to locate the entrance of the new estate in their estate. That is why five of the six councillors voted against the development. What alternatives are there to construct social housing in Cootehill, but also in Cavan in general?

As I said earlier, my view is that we have to provide for social and affordable housing and move away from creating barriers to getting housing built in this country given the crisis that many people who cannot access housing currently experience. I do not know the specifics of the case in question or what happened so I cannot comment on it or on whether there is a mechanism for getting the houses delivered, but I am very conscious, as is the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, that every mechanism that can be used by the State to provide housing should be used.

I want to raise the case of Anne Kelly. Anne is 86 years old and is housebound in Ashbourne, County Meath. She is waiting for her Covid vaccine and getting more anxious by the day. She feels like she has been forgotten about. She could be forgiven for this because, in this Chamber on 25 March, a month ago, the Minister said the first phase of the vaccination programme for the housebound was completed in Dublin and the north-east. Mrs. Kelly has not had her vaccine and is distraught. She spent Easter Sunday in tears according to her daughter, Adrienne, who is a fantastic advocate and who, like others, can get no answers. By everyone's Covid-19 measure, the housebound are the most vulnerable. Age is the defining risk factor. The lack of information is very frustrating. Are there 3,000, 1,000 or 300 on the list? All of these figures have been quoted in the past week. Could the Taoiseach please give Anne Kelly and others in the same position some hope, show them they are not forgotten about and tell us when they will get the vaccine?

We want to give every housebound person in this situation a vaccine. I do not know whether the Deputy has spoken to the GP or the HSE about this but these are issues that ordinarily are dealt with by engaging with the local doctor and HSE. The National Ambulance Service has been doing this and it has been doing an excellent job. Quite a significant number of housebound people have been vaccinated. I do not think the Deputy's approach is the best way to try to proceed. I will say no more than that. I just believe there are ways of sorting this out fairly quickly. If the Deputy gives me the details, we will pursue the matter.

I will send on the information.

It is important as we exit Covid that the Land Development Agency hits the ground running because it is a State developer and will have access to large tracts of public land. It is going to masterplan new communities and rebalance the country regionally and for sustainability, but I would like to raise a few issues that could put sand in its cogs. First, the recent interim chair, who is stepping down, indicated that funding of €2.5 billion is not enough and that the agency’s mission may be curtailed. My back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest he is right and that it would allow only about 6,000 houses to be built and a relatively small land bank to be created. Second, we need to streamline the public procurement process. In this regard, the largest city council, Dublin City Council, is having real difficulty in that it takes four to six years to get a project off the ground. Finally, we must ensure the funding is off balance sheet so we achieve the maximum impact and so the agency's operations are not affected by the vagaries of public finances. I ask the Taoiseach to look seriously at those issues.

This legislation has been progressed for some time but there have been challenges in regard to it. The Minister has succeeded in getting it through. A range of issues have arisen in respect of it, including state aid. The key point is that the agency will have a very significant impact. I will refer the Deputy's concerns to the Minister. The agency is one of a number of measures that, combined and cumulatively, could result in significant housebuilding. I take the Deputy's point on the importance of the agency. It does need to hit the ground running; that, I accept fully.

The programme for Government aims to improve public transport. Bus Éireann has recognised a number of areas, for example, across west Cork, through mid-Cork and into north Cork, where improvements are needed. The pandemic has held up a great deal of improvement. Being an optimist, I am looking towards reopening after the pandemic. I see this as a real opportunity to make changes as people are creating new habits and returning to college and the workplace. It was recognised in respect of the Macroom service, which operates via Coachford and Cloughduv, and also in respect of the Enniskeane and Cross Barry services, the 243 into north Cork and many others that there was a need to upgrade services. As we prepare plans for reopening society, can there be engagement with transport service providers, including Bus Éireann, in Cork and right across the country to ensure the best services reopen for people as they form new habits and return to the workplace?

I thank the Deputy for raising the important issue of the expansion of services in the mid-Cork area, particularly the Macroom-Cork city route, which he has raised previously. The Government has committed to reviewing the frequency of that service. The National Transport Authority, NTA, is also working on this. The Deputy is correct that it makes absolute sense that we enhance high-quality public transport services to the area. I am conscious of what he said about Coachford, Cloughduv and Cross Barry. The NTA has now completed the first phase of consultation on its proposal, entitled Connecting Ireland, with all local authorities. It is now engaging with regional authorities and other key stakeholders. There will be wider public consultation on this because we are determined to improve connectivity, particularly in the locations the Deputy has identified.

Dublin Bus is operating at 25% capacity, as it should be during the pandemic, but on top of that it is also operating a Saturday schedule, which means there is a significant reduction in the running times of the buses. They are late on many occasions, and this is during the week. The company is also operating a very reduced timetable because of the Saturday schedule. This is since the schools reopened. Somebody is asleep at the wheel. No doubt it is not uncharacteristic of the Minister to be asleep, but could the Taoiseach ask the NTA to wake up and return bus operations in Dublin and beyond to full capacity so people will not be left behind. Literally hundreds of people are being left behind at bus stops because we do not have the weekday capacity required.

As the Taoiseach knows, CE scheme supervisors have been waiting since 2008 following a Labour Court recommendation that the State make arrangements to give them occupational pensions. It is my understanding that some progress has now been made between the two key Departments responsible for social protection. If the CE scheme supervisors are not satisfied with the proposal on the table, and I have been contacted by several who are not, will the Taoiseach commit to further engagement with them in the hope of reaching a satisfactory resolution?

The Minister, clearly, is not responsible for the operation of bus schedules, but the NTA has a role in that and I will certainly convey the concerns of Deputy Bríd Smith to the NTA in respect of the points raised.

On Deputy Nolan's point, the Ministers for Public Expenditure and Reform and Social Protection have been making progress on this issue and are engaging with the stakeholders. Hopefully, we can get a satisfactory resolution.