Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

There is a list of 20 Deputies. I am not sure we will get through them all but I ask Deputies to comply with the time and we will do our best.

The Tánaiste is aware of reports overnight that the British Government intends to grant an amnesty for its forces involved in illegal actions, including murder, during the conflict in the North. I welcome the comments of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, indicating his opposition to this unilateral move. All families bereaved during the conflict deserve the truth and we support them in this. This is why we have supported the provisions contained in the Stormont House Agreement and in New Decade, New Approach. These agreements were the foundation upon which the political institutions were re-established, and we cannot see them undermined in this fashion. It is important the Irish Government and all of us in this Chamber send out a clear message to Boris Johnson that this plan is unacceptable and the British Government needs to return to the commitments made at Stormont House and in New Decade, New Approach. As co-guarantor of these agreements, I trust the Government will now engage with the British Government and the other parties to ensure this happens.

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue. I have to say the Government and I, personally, were deeply alarmed by reports we read about the possibility the British Government may consider providing an amnesty or putting in place a statute of limitations on offences that occurred during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. This would fly in the face of the Stormont House Agreement and of the New Decade, New Approach Agreement. Anything like this would have to have the agreement of the parties in Northern Ireland. It is something we would not support as a Government because we stand with the victims and the families who have been bereaved and damaged as a consequence of these actions. They have a right to know what happened and they have a right to justice. Whether the murderers were British soldiers or republicans or loyalists, they should be brought to justice.

Yesterday, my neighbour, Gary Toohey, tweeted a picture of himself outside the maternity hospital in Limerick, stating "Hours away from having our first child and there I am waving up at herself from outside the hospital on the street, where do you begin". His partner is Joyce and they are neighbours of mine. This is barbaric. The Taoiseach indicated to me last week this issue would be sorted. We were very much disappointed when it was not. Last week, I tabled a parliamentary question asking the HSE what maternity services were allowing in partners for critical moments during pregnancy. It could not answer me because it did not know. What is even worse is that officials did not go around and ask the maternity services themselves because they could not be bothered. This is barbaric. Once and for all, will the Government please ensure there is consistency in services to allow partners to be together in the delivery of maternity services at critical times?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue again. I know it is of enormous interest to many people in the House.

I will check up on this. My understanding was that partners could attend for the birth of their child and we were to revise the guidelines so that they could attend other appointments as well, such as the 20-week scan and some antenatal appointments.

It is not happening.

I have heard and understand there may be different policies being operated in different maternity hospitals, but I agree that a standard approach would be better and favourable. I will take it up with the Department of Health and with the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, in the next couple of days.

The US now supports the waiver on intellectual property rights for the Covid-19 vaccine and will negotiate at the upcoming WTO negotiations on that basis. A global waiver on the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, TRIPS, is necessary if we are to fight Covid on a global basis and vaccinate the global community. Our President, Michael D. Higgins, has hailed the moved by President Biden as "a moment of ... moral significance". Will the Tánaiste commit to the Government now actively supporting the intellectual property waiver at an EU level and confirm the EU should now also follow the US?

As the Deputy will be aware, this matter is an EU competence. Ireland does not have a seat at the WTO. We are represented by the EU. There are no Covid vaccines made or developed in Ireland and, to my knowledge, the intellectual property is not held here. The statement by Ms Katherine Tai, the US Trade Representative, and the decision of the US Administration is very significant and should cause the EU and other developed countries to reassess their position.

The Covid pandemic is raging around the world. We are seeing record cases every day. To get it under control, we need to get it under control everywhere through vaccination, as we did with polio, smallpox and other viruses. If we do not, we risk reimportation into this country and variants. Our strong view is that Covid-19 vaccines global access, COVAX, is the best way to do this. It is an international partnership which we are part of. A TRIPS waiver is definitely an option but there are difficulties with it also. Few countries in the global south have the infrastructure and know-how or materials to make those vaccines and there is no point in giving somebody a recipe if he or she does not have the kitchen, the cooking skills or the ingredients. We want to take actions that do good, not just actions that look good or make us feel good, and we think the best way to do that-----

Does the Tánaiste believe the US is doing this to look good?

-----is to involve the pharmaceutical companies, scientists and universities in a solution that will allow more vaccines to be made, and particularly in the global south.

That was quite a slippery answer from the Tánaiste. I will attempt to get an answer again. People Before Profit has been campaigning for months for a people's vaccine to stop the big pharmaceutical companies and their profit interest standing in the way of people getting access to vaccines and to seek to avoid the horror scenes we are seeing in India. The Government had a position, which was to oppose a people's vaccine. They dismissed the people's vaccine in the Dáil and they went along with the EU in using its votes at the WTO to block the India-South Africa proposal. Now the Biden Administration, under pressure from below, has changed its position. It seems to recognise that COVAX is no solution whatsoever. They are saying they will support a suspension. There is a question for Ireland. I saw the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, welcoming the announcement from the US but, if that is the case, will the Government be pressurising the EU to use its vote to support the India-South Africa proposal to suspend TRIPS?

The President of the Commission made a statement on this this morning and made it clear that the European Union is open to discussions on this matter. We want a practical solution that actually means that more vaccines will be produced in the global south and that needs to go beyond a TRIPS waiver. The EU position is we are committed and open to trying to reach an agreement with all members of the WTO on how to achieve the shared goal of providing timely and secure access to safe and affordable vaccines and medicines for all. This was reiterated by the European Union at the meeting of the WTO general council yesterday. There are existing flexibilities in the TRIPS agreement which allow compulsory licensing without negotiation with the patent holder in the context of a national emergency such as this and that a compulsory licence can cover exports to all countries that lack a manufacturing capability.

The EU has also welcomed the announcement of the new WTO director general to explore a third way to broaden access to Covid vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics.

I thank the Tánaiste. We are over time.

This would be achieved not only by waiving patent rights but also by facilitating technology transfer within the framework of multilateral rules.

Town centres across Tipperary and the country were struggling before Covid. The lure of commercial centres was only surpassed by the convenience of online shopping. Government-funded urban regeneration schemes were a welcome and significant step forward but the pandemic has undermined their objective. A drive through town centres across the country is a dismal experience. Every year more retail premises are left vacant. As the number of vacant shops grows, these towns become less attractive to new retail ventures. Business generates business. People are attracted to towns where their shopping and service requirements are to be met. It is vital we support the businesses that have survived. A new and innovative scheme to encourage small retail outlets, such as cafés, hairdressers and boutiques, to occupy these units would invigorate our towns. Renovation and fit-out supports, rent subsidy for a defined period and rate concessions would encourage new retailers. Such a scheme would help to rejuvenate our town centres and generate revenue.

I thank the Deputy. Traditional main streets and traditional shopping streets are really under pressure around Ireland. Whether it is in small towns and rural towns around the country or whether it is in places such as Henry Street here in Dublin, we now see a growing issue of vacancy on main streets and on traditional shopping streets. That is really for two reasons. One is the move online. Many more people are shopping online and that will not change. It is also because of the development of large shopping centres, which are not going to go away.

I agree we need to do something that helps to reinvigorate our main streets, bring them back to life, put more people living in them, and adapt buildings and renovate them. We need to make sure it is something that is sustainable. We will not be able to go back to the way it was. Online shopping and shopping centres are a reality but perhaps there are things we can do to bring those buildings and those old shops back into use and thus make our town centres and our main streets attractive places again.

The situation with pass-through charges or, indeed, standing charges continuing to be charged to business customers by energy suppliers right throughout the pandemic is simply disgraceful. Some hospitality customers in my constituency have been charged up to €26,000 in pass-through charges alone by the energy suppliers. This is shocking money. They appreciate the support they got from Government but 40% of the support is going to pay these charges. Will the Tánaiste talk to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, who seems to be asleep at the wheel here on this, telling people he has no role in it? The Government must have a role in it. The Government is supporting businesses but 40% or 50% of the money is going back in standing charges. The Government closed the businesses by order. The Government is supporting them the best it can but the energy companies are laughing all the way to the bank. The only option for customers is stop their direct debits or cut off the supply themselves where they would incur massive charges to reconnect.

I thank the Deputy. We are over time.

It is simply not good enough. It is 13 or 14 months going on now and it has to be dealt with.

I will certainly look into it. If the Deputy wants to send me on some more information or some examples, I will take it up with the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and the regulator. I think I know what the response will be. The response will be that standing charges are there to pay for the infrastructure. They are there to pay for the pipes, the pylons and the wires.

I accept that, but this is different.

Even when they are not being used, they have to be paid for. I would be happy to look into it further.

On 16 February, the Tánaiste's colleague, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy O'Brien, brought a memorandum to Cabinet announcing the establishment of the independent working group to examine defective housing. To date, there has been no publication of either the membership of this working group or its terms of reference. This is despite the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, promising that the group would be up and running in quarter one of this year and the programme for Government promising it would report by July.

In Donegal, I am inundated with calls, letters and email from mica-affected constituents who are at the end of their tether with the scheme that was brought in by the former Minister, Mr. Eoghan Murphy, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe. It is not working for them. They are hoping that this group's work will be able to offer them solutions to the problems they are encountering. They are not complaining and looking for a handout. They are suggesting innovative solutions and ideas that will help them if the group engages with and listens to them, but first it needs to be operational. When will the terms of reference of the working group be brought before the House and when will we see action, not more broken promises?

I thank the Deputy. I am familiar with the issue of mica in Donegal and in Mayo and I have been in houses in Donegal that have been affected. Unfortunately, I am not up to date on where we are in terms of the scheme and the working group. I will be talking to the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, either today or tomorrow.

I will let him know that the Deputy raised it here and ask him to respond directly.

Fortunately, with a lot progress being made in reducing Covid-19 transmission rates and case numbers, as well as with the roll-out of vaccination programmes, the European Commission has proposed a digital green certificate. However, there is a lot of information missing with regard to whether we intend to use that here and if so, when we will begin to use it and how. It is also unclear how the certificate, which is a facilitation of international travel, might interact with our own restrictions on travel. Is it countenanced that we could be hosting international visitors while our own citizens would be unable to fly? How does it fit with the requirement that travel be for essential purposes only? There is also the question as to whether the State is considering vaccination as a key to easing restrictions on movement. Bearing in mind that the mantra to date has been that we are all in this together, it is worth remembering that there is a cohort of people who, through no fault of their own, whether for medical reasons or because of their age, are not vaccinated. Will the Tánaiste agree to having a debate in Government time on all of these issues?

I remind Members that if they go over their time, their colleagues will not get in. The Tánaiste has one minute to respond.

I would be happy to have a debate on this issue in Government time. Deputy Griffin will talk to Deputy Creed about organising that. It is already the case that being

fully vaccinated exempts people from mandatory hotel quarantine. That makes sense and the vast majority of people agree with that. It is the intention of the Government to opt in to the green digital certificate being prepared by the European Union but we do not know exactly what that is yet. It has to be bottomed out and clarified. As the Deputy knows, we are not in the Schengen zone and it might be the case that member states have a lot of discretion as to how they use it. It may be a common tool but it may not be used or applied uniformly across member states. We need to know exactly what it is before we decide to use it and how to do so. It is still being developed.

We are in the middle of a global health crisis. We are living in extraordinary times which call for extraordinary measures. I note that last night President Biden released a statement announcing his Administration's support for the waiving of intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines. It is quite obvious that not vaccinating the globe in its entirety as expeditiously as possible increases the likelihood of the development of further variants that are resistant to existing vaccines, ultimately prolonging the pandemic. I am sorry to repeat what others have raised but in light of last night's announcement, this issue needs to be discussed at greater length. I note the Tánaiste's comments on the inability of certain countries in the global South to manufacture vaccines but there are large nations in that region that would have the capacity to do so. This is an issue that the Government must examine again.

As I mentioned earlier, the announcement from the US yesterday is very significant and has caused the EU and other developed countries to reassess their position on this matter. This pandemic is raging across the world. Records are being broken every day in terms of the number of new cases. If we are going to get the virus under control, we need to get it under control everywhere. That means vaccinating everyone in the world and doing to Covid-19 what we did to polio and small pox. If we do not do that, the virus could be re-imported into the West and variants will develop that could be resistant to vaccines. However, as I mentioned earlier, just giving somebody the recipe is not enough. If they do not have a kitchen, kitchen skills or the ingredients, it will not make a practical difference in terms of the production of vaccines. That is why it makes sense to have a comprehensive agreement, ideally with the companies and the manufacturers of the materials on board because they are the ones with the know-how. That is the approach that is going to be taken in the WTO.

Last month I raised the issue of the lack of a vaccination centre in Drogheda. The HSE had originally identified Drogheda and Dundalk for vaccination centres. The centre in Dundalk is up and running, which is good news, but there is no excuse for the delay in the delivery of a vaccination centre for Drogheda. I contacted the HSE again recently but there is still no update. I am sure the Tánaiste will agree that the efficient, fast and effective roll-out of the vaccination programme is of the utmost importance but there seems to be no urgency in the HSE to deliver same. Will the Tánaiste instruct the HSE to expedite the delivery of the vaccination centre in Drogheda? It is the largest town in Ireland and people should not be forced to travel to be vaccinated.

I appreciate that the Deputy raised this matter with me previously. Deputy O'Dowd also raised it with me. Drogheda is a town of more than 40,000 people and I can see that there is a very strong case for having a vaccination centre there as well as in Dundalk. I will raise it with the HSE. As the Deputy knows, I do not have the authority to instruct the HSE on matters like this but I will certainly raise it. I would point out that there are many other parts of the country where there is no vaccination centre and people have to travel to be vaccinated. I represent the Blanchardstown area, which is home to 120,000 people and the nearest vaccination centres are in DCU and City West, to which people have to travel. Those centres are working very well.

Like I said, I will raise the matter with the HSE.

I wish to ask whether the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, on foot of his and the Cabinet's illogical decision last week to adopt the least beneficial options from a Grant Thornton review, will be introducing legislation to scrap the Liberties' Digital Hub Development Agency, a highly successful and sustainable hub for digital companies, and the associated jobs, in an area of Dublin which is in need of regeneration. Will he, in the same legislation, hand over lands earmarked for local jobs, to the Land Development Agency, LDA, rather than to Dublin City Council, as promised for the last ten years? Has the Minister met the workers he is sacking or the community he is depriving of a very positive player in promoting regeneration in that area?

I understand there is nothing on the legislative programme as yet on this matter. It is the responsibility of the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and I understand he is of the view that those lands in Dublin 8 would be best used for regeneration with a mixed development, including housing, business and other uses. The best thing for me to do is ask the Minister to contact Deputy Ó Snodaigh directly to discuss it further. I imagine he will want to meet all local of the Deputies on this matter.

What is being done to tackle the massive backlog of driver theory tests? It is my understanding that online testing was piloted for tractor drivers and the plan was to begin online testing for car drivers. What is the update on that? Are we increasing the number of testers to cope with the demand? I have had many emails and phone calls from people who want to know why they are being offered tests in different counties and having tests in their own counties cancelled? That has been raised with staff in my constituency office several times. Next Monday is 10 May and we are all delighted to see that we are starting to reopen. There is great excitement out there but this is such an important issue. I have had emails from students and from people who need a car to get to work. We need a plan and we need to improve the communication on this.

I understand that this is a burning issue. People need to get on the road, particularly younger people in rural Ireland but also in urban Ireland, to go to college and take up employment opportunities. We need to get on top of the backlog that was created by the pandemic. I am not 100% across the announcement yesterday but I understand that some services will reopen and an additional 40 staff will be taken on to help get through the backlog. Work is being done on an online driver theory test which will help with the situation as well. I am not 100% across it but that is the plan of action. I agree that we need to get through the backlog quickly so that people can get to college and to work.

I want to raise the new model of SNA allocations in my constituency of Meath West, at St. Mary's National School, Collinstown, County Westmeath. Twin boys with additional needs will start school in September but at the moment the parents of the boys and the principal of the school do not know if they will have access to SNA support. The principal has spoken to the special educational needs organiser, SENO, as I have.

He cannot make any commitment until the allocation model is realised. One can imagine the stress this is having on the parents who do not know if their boys will have SNA support come September. This is not good enough. It should be a given that these boys would have access to a special needs assistant, SNA, in the same school their older sibling goes to. The happiness and well-being of two young boys are at stake. Will the Tánaiste ask the Minister, Deputy Foley, to release this information immediately to the schools and parents rather than having them waiting in limbo, not knowing what is happening come September?

As the Deputy will be aware, we have more special needs assistants working in our schools than ever before. That is a reflection of the level of need but, also, the level of commitment by Government to making sure children who have additional educational needs get the best chance in life. This matter falls under the responsibility of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan. I will take it up with her and press on her the need to make sure parents know what the situation will be as soon as possible.

I want to bring to the Tánaiste's attention that there are almost 3,000 learner drivers waiting for a driver test in County Kerry. Since lorries and buses can do the theory test online, why can the theory test not be set up online for all vehicles? The Government is supposedly working with the Road Safety Authority, RSA, to get the theory test online for more than one year. Why is it taking more than one year to get this off the ground?

Traditionally, farmers' sons and daughters could do their theory test when they reached 16 years of age, get their provisional licence and drive a tractor to help out on the farm or get a job locally for the summer. This is not possible now. Young drivers cannot do the theory test, get their provisional licence or get on the road. It is essential for everybody to have a licence in rural Ireland. I am asking the Tánaiste to ask the testers to work on Saturdays and Sundays to deal with the backlog and to ensure the theory test can be applied for online for all learner drivers to get on the road.

As I mentioned earlier, I appreciate this is a big problem and a burning issue. Young people, in particular, need to be able to get on the road in rural Ireland and in urban Ireland too, so they can access job opportunities, get to college or do whatever they need to do. Yesterday, an announcement was made by the Minister for Transport that an additional 40 staff would be taken on to try to get through the backlog that built up over the course of the pandemic. Some theory tests are being done online. I do not see why more cannot be done online. I think that is the suggestion Deputy Healy-Rae is making. That is the intention.

On a point of order, I am aware there are changes to Questions on Promised Legislation. The instruction coming from the Ceann Comhairle's office is that Deputies would be only permitted to be able to speak once. Deputy Higgins spoke yesterday, so it is only fair that-----

It is not a point of-----

I have already contacted the Ceann Comhairle's office and he said he would rectify this, so in the interest of fairness the Deputy should cede and sit down.

It is not a point of order. Deputy Ward is attempting to clarify something. We will have to come back to it. In the meantime, Deputy Higgins is on the list, so I am calling her.

Everyday, I am being contacted by constituents in their 30s and 40s in cohorts 4 and 7 who are coming up against roadblocks in the roll-out of the vaccination plan. They are attending GPs who are not administering vaccines, or who are not administering the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. This is proving hugely difficult for people, in particular people who are not under the care of a hospital team. These GPs need to be able to refer their vulnerable patients to a vaccination centre, just as they did for their over 70s.

I stood in this spot two weeks ago and asked the Minister for Health to intervene on this issue and to make sure that we could resolve issues in which GPs were not administering vaccines. We need do that and that is why I am escalating this to the Tánaiste today.

I thank Deputy Higgins for raising that and I know the Deputy raised it with me last night as well. I have not had a chance to follow up on it but I will. It is an important issue to which we need a solution because we need to make sure we do not miss any of those patients in groups 4 and 7, because they are the ones at highest medical need. The Deputy can be sure I will follow up on that later today.

I am a bit disappointed with Deputy Ward's remarks. I do not see why he is so keen to silence Deputy Higgins.

We are dealing with Questions on Promised Legislation.

Certainly, the approach in my constituency is always to facilitate each other and allow each other to speak.

I am not silencing anybody.

We are all waiting.

I had intended to use some flexibility but I will not. I will stop on the dot in a little while. There is a procedure. We wanted to avoid this and make sure that everybody got in. I have one minute and 33 seconds left and I am sticking rigidly to the time.

In his reply to earlier questions, I heard the Tánaiste say there could be unintended consequences if there was a complete ban on cuckoo funds acting, about which we have all been talking in recent days. An obvious unintended consequence is the way they are acting at the moment, because they were established to increase supply and to provide capital and extra housing, instead of swooping in and purchasing housing already completed.

A number of cases have been brought to my attention in which further swoops are imminent. How long will it take the Government to come up with a solution to this problem? The activities we are talking about are not in the public interest.

Is there anything the Government can do, as an interim measure, to prevent more houses being swallowed up before it comes to a conclusion on what it will do?

Deputy O'Dea is quite right. This was an unintended consequence. An unintended consequence we want to avoid is a reduction in supply by banning forms of private investment but I am sure we can find a solution that gets the balance right. I cannot give the Deputy a timeline on it at present but I know the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy O'Brien, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, are treating this with urgency and we hope to have proposals soon.

That completes Questions on Promised Legislation. If Deputies complied, everybody would get in. Unfortunately, a number of Deputies have not got in. Deputies should take it up in the relevant forum.