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 am sorry to have to raise this today. I am looking for a debate on the whole situation around driving licences, theory tests and driving tests. We hope to have our economy recovering. There are legions of people, young and old, trying to get theory tests, lessons and driving tests. Something must be done. I raised it with the Tánaiste here last week and he promised action but no actions have been taken. We must have a debate on this issue because it is so important for people in education and people in the health services who want to be trainee nurses and go for placement. It is especially a problem in rural Ireland that people cannot go anywhere without the gluaisteán. They just cannot so we need a debate on this issue. I have tried a couple of times to get this raised as a Topical Issue matter on behalf of our group. We need urgent action on this and a debate in the House.

It is a matter suitable for Topical Issue matters but the Government has moved on this. We have decided on the safe, gradual and phased reopening of some driver services through the Road Safety Authority, RSA, from 10 May. The RSA has recruited 40 more testers who are currently being trained and will be deployed from June to deal with the backlog of tests. Plans are also advancing to recruit a further 40 testers and to add up to 20 driving test centres. Obviously, the gradual reopening of services will not immediately solve the backlog but I assure the Deputy that every possible measure is being put in place to ensure the maximum number of customers can be served while adhering strictly to public health guidance. Driving tests for essential workers will continue. The Government is therefore alive to that. It is not a matter for me. It is a matter more suitable to Topical Issue matters.

Next week we are moving from one session of Topical Issue matters to two, so if the Deputies want to table it, we will try to take it next week. Is today's business agreed to? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with tomorrow, Thursday's business agreed to? Agreed. I thank Members. We move now to Questions on Promised Legislation. I call Deputy McDonald.

The past year has been extremely stressful for expectant parents. As the Taoiseach knows, public health restrictions have meant women have had to attend the majority of their maternity appointments without their partner. In some cases this has led to situations where women were getting very difficult and indeed traumatic news on their own. Ahead of the Taoiseach's announcement on the easing of public health restrictions, pregnant women and their partners were led to believe full access for partners would be granted for all prenatal care, all scans and all appointments. However, his announcement fell well short of that and he has left pregnant women and their partners very concerned and disappointed. Consequently, I ask that he correct that situation to ensure women can have their partner with them for all prenatal care, all scans and all appointments.

The Deputy's time is up.

What the Taoiseach announced last week around the 20-week scan and attendance where established labour was under way existed already in hospitals so we are asking the Government to take the next step. It is the right thing to do.

First of all, I am very supportive of the need for women to be accompanied by their partners at all prenatal scans. Clinical directors have determined this from the outset of the pandemic on public health grounds and on no other grounds. We have sought in our engagement with the HSE to ensure there would be national uniformity in the application of these guidelines, and given that case numbers and the spread of the virus has been very substantially suppressed within hospital environments, it seems to me expectant mothers should be facilitated in this regard. I will continue my engagement with the HSE on that front.

It was with much disappointment that on the Monday of the workers' bank holiday, we awoke to reports the National Transport Authority, NTA, plans a further tendering of four Bus Éireann routes, namely the 101, the 101X - the Drogheda to Dublin service, the 133 and the 131 between Dublin and Wicklow. Is this a policy the Government supports? Is it commensurate with its commitment in the programme for Government? Almost more pertinently, is it complimentary to a strong climate action plan that this slice-by-slice approach to the privatisation of our public transport system will deliver what is needed in terms of carbon emissions in our public transport network if we are to meet the 7% year-on-year carbon reductions? I believe it would not but I am interested to hear what the Taoiseach's stance is.

I do not support slice-by-slice privatisation of the national transport system. There is a balance to be struck and it has been struck for quite some time. I believe in a strong Bus Éireann and strong investment in it, particularly in the context of climate change. It is very important for fleet renewal and the upgrading of the fleet generally that it would be consistent with the country's climate change agenda. That is the broad basis that underpins Government policy. Public transport is going to grow and expand in the country, commensurate with the needs of the country in respect of meeting its climate goals and targets.

The Taoiseach has told us that he and the Government are against global investment funds buying up suburban housing estates. There is nothing new in what is happening. In 2009, the Construction Industry Federation, CIF, stated that 95% of new build apartments were being bought up by these funds, leaving only 5% for everyone else. Is the Government going to act not just on suburban housing estates but also on apartments, new-build housing in cities - or perhaps the Government is concerned only with suburbs - and will it introduce a ban on real estate investment trusts, REITs, buying up apartments and houses, as has been done in Germany, to stop this practice?

First of all, there is something new in what happened over the weekend. There is no point in saying there is not because there is. The Government will act on that in terms of the move by REITs into suburban housing estates. Supply is key in the market. We need a greater supply of houses and apartments. We do not have a sufficiency of supply right now. We certainly did not have six or eight years ago but the institutional investors buying up completed housing estates is not acceptable at all. It runs counter to Government policy which gives a strong priority to first-time buyers. We want first-time buyers to be able to afford to buy homes. It is the kernel of our affordability strategy. Likewise, we want to build thousands and thousands of new social homes which will, when they are built, take pressure off the housing assistance payment, HAP, system and off the private rental sector, creating more space for the private rental sector. The cornerstone of Government policy this year is therefore to provide 12,750 social homes, 9,500 of which will be direct builds under the aegis of approved housing bodies or local authorities. That is the key point to remember.

More than 500 ESB Networks technicians are today on their fourth day of strike action. They are striking against the outsourcing of their work without consultation or consent and against the creeping privatisation and running down of ESB Networks at a time when we should be investing in these green jobs which are vital to electrify the economy further as part of a rapid just transition to a zero-carbon economy. However, ESB Networks refuses to even consult the Independent Workers Union, IWU, the union of these workers' choice. In fact, ESB Networks refuses even to acknowledge there is an official trade dispute taking place. Instead it is using public money to take a civil action against the union. Will the Taoiseach intervene and insist the company sits down with the IWU and discusses how to resolve the dispute?

It is regrettable we have a dispute of this kind under way.

That is a matter in the first instance for the ESB to address and to resolve. That is where the matter has to be dealt with at this stage.

Every year 4,500 people leave behind an empty home when they enter long-term nursing home care. Just 300 of these homes are rented out. Unlike the social welfare means assessment, where a capital asset when rented out is included in the calculation just once, under the fair deal nursing homes scheme, the same property is included three times in the means assessment. It takes an average of six years for these homes to go through probate, to be sold and to be refurbished. This means that 25,000 homes, mainly family homes in established communities with broadband and close to schools, are being locked out of the housing system because we place a treble tax on an older person who rents out his or her home. It makes no sense at the height of a housing crisis not to treat rental income in the same way across all Departments to ensure that it does not lock families out of accessible housing.

I thank the Deputy for his question. It is anticipated that a memo for Government will be brought to the Cabinet in the next week or two. It is a Government priority that this important legislation, which brings long-awaited rights and protections to farmers and small business owners, is brought forward and passed without delay. It was agreed that the Departments of Health and Housing, Local Government and Heritage would work together to bring forward a Committee Stage amendment on the treatment of the proceeds of the sale of a house while a resident is in long-term care. These Departments are working together on developing the policy on the treatment of rental income and have agreed a process which is currently in train to move this forward. The importance of addressing the programme for Government's commitment aimed at bringing relevant vacant homes into use is a priority.

As the Deputy will be aware, the nursing home support scheme is a complex €1.4 billion scheme that affects the lives of more than 22,000 residents. It is, therefore, important to ensure that the cost-benefits and unintended consequences of any policy changes are fully understood before they are put in place. We will revert to the Deputy to report progress on this matter.

As we talk about the reopening of our hospitality sector, I would like to ask the Taoiseach what he has against the small or even the big family-run pub business. The illogical description of a pub as a "wet pub" was horrible. Fáilte Ireland said it did not come up with it. I do not know who did but it has been banished. Are we now going to further discriminate against publicans where they cannot apply for grants for outdoor seating? Surely every pub, whether it serves food or not, should be able to apply for funding from the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin's Department to be able to cater for the customers, which they love to do. The customers want hope as well. These pubs should be able to apply for these grants in the same way as a pub that serves food. Why is the Government segregating and demonising the family-run pub businesses that do not, cannot and never did serve food but run a very good business and give a fíor-fháilte to locals, strangers and everybody else and support the community in whatever it is doing? Give them a fair crack of the whip to try to re-emerge from the past 14 months and allow them to at least apply for the grant.

First, the Government and I are very supportive of rural pubs and those which do not sell food. In our view, they have provided a very important social network across the length and breadth of the country. The virus has wreaked havoc on the hospitality sector, including on pubs.

The Taoiseach has.

The virus has done this. The Deputy wishes to create a political polemic and rhetoric which is untrue.

The Taoiseach has.

The Taoiseach without interruption, please.

It is unfortunate that he has gone down that particular road-----

The Taoiseach has gone off on a tangent here.

The Taoiseach again without interruption, please.

-----and used language that was inappropriate and wrong.

The Taoiseach is the one who is using language that is inappropriate.

As the Deputy said correctly, the Government has already provided supports for establishments that provide outdoor dining and we are looking at examining, in a positive way, what we can do for those who do not provide outdoor dining but might need support to facilitate outdoor drinking, for example, as such services recommence on 7 June.

The important point is to keep the pressure on the virus. I am aware that the Deputy has been in semi-denial at times about-----

I ask the Taoiseach to stop as his time is up.

-----the Covid-19 pandemic-----

The Taoiseach is in denial.

-----but it is important that we treat it as it is.

One cannot have one's cake and eat it.

The Deputy certainly can.

I call Deputy Harkin.

This is my third time to raise the issue of payment of moneys to Sligo Airport for completed, essential safety works required by the Irish Aviation Authority. Since 2011, Sligo Airport has not received €1 of public money and yet it operates the busiest coastguard service in the country. At a meeting last December, which I and a number of public representatives attended, a mechanism was proposed whereby funding could be channelled to the airport for the cost of these essential safety works and subsequently Sligo Airport paid €280,000 for completion of these works. The money urgently needs to be recouped and I am hoping for a timely and positive response from the Taoiseach on this issue.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Both she and Deputy MacSharry have raised this issue consistently and robustly for quite a while. I have spoken to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, in respect of this. I understand the importance of the Irish Coast Guard Service, the base in Sligo and the expenditure that the airport had to undertake and I will continue to engage with the Department in respect of this issue.

Can the Government consider the creation of a new bank holiday at the end of September as a boost to the tourism and hospitality sector? I welcome the announcements that were made recently on reopening and I hope, as the momentum around the vaccine roll-out grows, that we will see further easing of restrictions in the sector. Once children go back to school next September, we will see a major fall-off in the domestic market. I, therefore, believe a bank holiday at the end of September would be very helpful.

In Kerry, of course, we have had a bank holiday at the end of September when we have won the all-Ireland but we have not had one for a few years. This year such a bank holiday would be very welcome and would be a big boost to the industry. If it works well this year, perhaps we could look at one next year as well. Of all years, it is very much needed this year.

When I heard the Deputy say the end of September, something came to mind in terms of Kerry people sometimes, although not at all times. I had better not say anything as I am Taoiseach. We have looked at a variety of mechanisms in terms of how we would reflect the State's appreciation of not only front-line healthcare workers but all front line workers who have enabled people to get through what has been a very difficult journey of the pandemic itself. The hospitality sector, in particular, has suffered enormously as a result of the virus and the pandemic. We will look at a variety of mechanisms that we could deploy to assist the hospitality sector and the Deputy has suggested one. There will be others and we will keep the matter under review.

The pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, has been a crutch of immense value for thousands of workers in our society. We are now emerging from the pandemic and employment opportunities are starting to re-emerge. I ask that there be a clear signpost and roadmap for both employers and people on the PUP on when this payment will cease as the job opportunities increase in the hospitality and other sectors. We want a clear roadmap as to when payments to people will cease when their old jobs back or new opportunities become available. People are looking for a clear roadmap as to when their individual circumstances will change.

First, the pandemic unemployment payment has represented an unprecedented intervention and support by the State in the personal incomes of those who have suffered and have borne the brunt of the pandemic in losing their jobs. Those payment will continue, at a very minimum, until the end of June. In between, various sectors will return in accordance with the Government's roadmap. For example, on 10 May, click and collect services will return for retail which will be fully restored on 17 May. All of the construction sector returned on 4 May and the personal services sector will be returning this month. That should naturally reduce the number on the pandemic unemployment payment. Prior to the end of June, we will bring forward any clarifications that will be required for those people who may not get their jobs back as quickly as others.

Last year, 109 beds were lost in rehabilitation treatment facilities nationally. Waiting times for beds in some facilities have doubled. Some 1,229 people have been waiting more than 12 months for treatment in one facility in particular. When I asked the Minister about this, he said there was nothing he or the HSE could do about it. That is not good enough. There is plenty that could have been done and that can still be done to reopen and replace the beds that have been closed. Will the Taoiseach commit to instructing the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, to stop burying his head in the sand, reopen these beds and address the scandalous waiting times for rehabilitation treatment beds?

Is the Deputy referring to rehabilitation more generally or is it specific rehabilitation?

These beds were lost due to the Covid restrictions but no attempt was made to replace them.

Is this in the area of addiction, physical rehabilitation or-----

We cannot have a general chat about it, I am afraid.

It is addiction services.

Addiction services. I certainly was not aware of 109 beds being lost in the wider service. I will have to examine the figure presented by the Deputy. I do not believe any Minister stated there was nothing he or she could do about it because there is a general policy in relation to addiction services. As the Deputy is aware, the HSE historically has been negative towards institutionalisation of addiction more generally. I will follow this up and revert to the Deputy.

I acknowledge and welcome the statement by the Taoiseach that the activities of the investment fund in Maynooth are not in accordance with Government policy. Has he been made aware of the fact that Kildare County Council, which is the relevant local authority, and two approved housing bodies were outbid in the competition for the estate in question? Can he indicate the action he proposes to take, it is to be hoped by way of emergency legislation, to ensure that a race does not take place whereby large tracts of land and houses under development can be acquired by finance companies in this fashion?

I thank the Deputy for his comments. The fact that the Kildare County Council and two approved housing bodies were outbid is certainly very damaging or bad news as well. I have spoken to the Ministers for Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform and Housing, Local Government and Heritage. Collectively, we will examine this issue because it is unacceptable and runs counter to Government policy which is to give priority to first-time buyers. The framework around the utilisation of these funds is to add supply, not to displace supply.

There has been a large and worrying number of high-profile assaults on members of the public, particularly on public transport and in public spaces. Unfortunately, some have been posted on social media. Recently, a lady was effectively pushed under a DART train in Howth. Sadly, many of these incidents go unreported and they are devastating for the victims. I was recently told of an incident in a local park when an Asian family was surrounded by a group of youths and subjected to racial abuse. None of these crimes should be happening. They are devastating for the victims. When will Garda recruitment resume? Can the Taoiseach provide an update for the House on the programme for Government commitments to tackle such anti-social behaviour and crime in cities?

I thank the Deputy for raising what is a very important issue. I was very taken aback by the illustration on social media of the incident to which he referred involving a woman being pushed onto the tracks in a shocking manner which endangered her life. In addition, we learn of continuing assaults on individuals going about their routine daily lives and also an increased degree of attacks with racism as an underlying feature. The Deputy instanced one such case. There have been others. In consultation with An Garda Síochána and community groupings and interests, Government will be giving these issues serious attention. The Garda recruitment process continues and will continue in terms of getting the numbers to the levels prioritised and identified in the programme for Government.

I wish to use this opportunity to focus attention on the specific case of Ava Barry. People the length and breadth of the State know the extremes to which her mother, Vera, had to go to get Ava much-needed access to the medication that would improve her quality of life. However, the family is now locked into a financial burden. They must ensure they have €9,500 upfront every three months, even during a pandemic, and wait for reimbursement. This cannot continue. It is truly unfair and it is not good enough. I can tell the Taoiseach that I know from experience that Vera is in distress and despair. Will he ensure equal treatment for those prescribed Bedrocan? Will he allow for Bedrocan medicinal cannabis products to be funded at source? Will he at least #talktoVera?

I have been in regular contact with Ava's mother, Vera, for quite a long time now and have been very supportive in the various stages of the campaign, including, in the first instance, securing Bedrocan for Ava via the Dutch authorities. I have gone the hard miles on this one and I do not really need any hashtag sort of momentum to push me in any direction on this. I have been supportive from the get-go and I have worked with the Department of Health and successive Ministers for Health in respect of this issue, securing the drug and reimbursement from the get-go, as well in terms of the application of this important medication in the context of Ava and her specific condition. As the Deputy is aware, the expert group recommended that those with certain conditions would be in a position to avail of medicinal cannabis in this case. I will continue to pursue this final stage in terms of the new mechanisms that are now available to others who are availing of the compassionate access programme.

What is a primary medical certificate? It allows a person with a disability to claim back the VAT on their vehicle. It also allows for tax relief on the purchase and adaptation of a vehicle. I have raised this issue on many occasions. This week, HSE community primary care sent me figures on this issue for around the country. Since January 2021, 403 people have been approved, 62 of whom are in north Dublin, while between Limerick, Clare and Tipperary only three have been approved. This is completely unacceptable. Disability cannot be parked. These people need their primary medical certificates. Without them, how can persons with a disability travel to medical appointments, schools, colleges or to get their basic family needs?

First of all, there are two issues here. The primary medical certificate, PMC, assessments fell behind as a result of Covid but the assessment process resumed on 1 January 2021. There are still some delays in the processing of assessments due to the involvement of medical officers in the national Covid-19 response as well as the ongoing public restrictions and those delays are causing undue strain on applicants. However, the HSE has confirmed that the assessment process for PMCs has resumed and data from the HSE show that 401 assessments were carried out between January and March of this year. It will keep the matter of assessments under review in the context of the HSE service recovery restoration plan. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, met the HSE on 10 March and 13 April to discuss the issues around delays and will keep the matter under review. I know the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, is reviewing the overall scheme.

I call Deputy Higgins. We are running out of time, so I ask her to be brief.

Right now, pregnant women in maternity hospitals across the country are going through appointments, scans and the early stages of labour on their own. If one walks past any maternity hospital, one will witness tearful goodbyes as pregnant women, in one of the most nerve-racking experiences of their life, leave their partner and enter the hospital without the security or the comfort of having a loved one by their side. It is truly heart-wrenching.

Last week, the HSE informed me in reply to a parliamentary question that antigen testing is not being considered as a means of safely easing maternity restrictions. However, a women's health clinic in Kerry is offering antigen testing to the partners of pregnant women. We know it can be done. We are not in the same situation we were when hospital restrictions first came in. Developments mean women can be treated with more compassion. I ask the Taoiseach please to work with the HSE to ensure that is done.

As I said earlier, I agree with the Deputy. I will continue to engage with the HSE on this. These are clinical decisions that have been taken from the outset of the pandemic but, given the success to date within the hospital environment in suppressing the virus and the success of the vaccination programme, greater facility should now exist for expectant mothers to be accompanied by their partners to scans and throughout the journey. Even if PCR testing needs to be used, the capacity exists for that.

The programme for Government commits to developing end-of-life services. Can the Taoiseach then explain the shameful treatment of the South Westmeath Hospice Committee? It is a voluntary committee that has been treated with utter disdain by the HSE and that is now resorting to legal advice. A written undertaking was given to this committee by the HSE that, should St. Vincent's Care Centre, the site of the current hospice, be sold, the services and facilities would be transferred and mirrored in a new premises. Four beds at the end of a ward will not now or ever mirror the current service, which is four bedrooms, a family space, a sitting room and a private entrance.

I have gone over time. Will the Deputy put her question?

As leader of the Government, will the Taoiseach please act in this regard? It is the most urgent of issues.

I am dealing with several constituents in north Kildare whose children are living with chronic pain. There are hundreds across the State left without a full-time pain management consultant or the chance of a necessary first appointment. I cannot imagine what it is like to have a child suffering constant chronic pain. These parents would take this pain in a heartbeat. These parents and I have so far only received holding letters back from the State referring to care that is being provided. The parents are categoric that it is not being offered. Will the Taoiseach make it his business to ensure these children receive the full-time pain management consultant appointments they need? Parents are worried about their mental health with the level of pain.

Government has been supportive of the hospice movement, particularly in recent months, and has provided substantial funding to underpin the hospices, given the huge challenges they have faced in terms of various fundraising projects being undermined by Covid-19. I am not aware of the specifics of this case but we will engage with the HSE. I have no doubt we will do everything we can to enhance the service, notwithstanding the challenges it is going through.

In respect of children with chronic pain, I will engage with the Minister and the HSE to make sure children in difficult and traumatic situations such as this are provided with the supports they require.