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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 13 May 2021

Vol. 1007 No. 1

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Next week, Sinn Féin will meet Anne Marie Cagney, assistant commissioner for the Dublin metropolitan region, to discuss the issue of antisocial behaviour in Dublin city and county. I am sure the Tánaiste, like all other Members, has seen social media videos of incidents in Malahide and other areas and I am sure constituents of his who are gravely concerned have contacted his office. The public health message is that we will have our summer outdoors. That means we need more facilities such as bins and public toilets. It also means that we will need to see more gardaí on our streets but, as well as that, we will need to see increased funding for community-based services and activities for younger people. It is not fair to demonise young people, as some people have tried to do, but neither can we ignore the real concerns communities have about the rise in antisocial behaviour.

Alongside the reopening plan, we need the Government to publish a plan for the summer outdoors which details investment in community-based services for young people as well as an increased Garda presence to keep outside spaces safe. Will the Tánaiste and the Government publish such a plan?

The Deputy makes a very good point and suggestion. We released a plan to have an outdoor summer and that may have issues that need to be dealt with. Local authorities are providing more bins and public toilets. I welcome that. We need more of that from local authorities.

As regards gardaí, the budget for the Garda and the number of gardaí have never been higher. We are at record levels in terms of the size of the Garda force and that allows for more outdoor gardaí and a more visible presence through the summer and that will be needed. The points made by the Deputy regarding community services are well made.

There are reports that the national immunisation advisory council, NIAC, is expected to clear the way for the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and possibly the AstraZeneca vaccine, for the 45 to 50 age cohort. In terms of the detail of this, there are issues relating to timing as regards cohorts, so this would be very positive news. I understand the Tánaiste told his parliamentary party last night that everyone who wants a vaccine will be offered one by the end of June. That would be great news. Can he confirm on the floor of the Dáil that that is his view? The reason this could be possible is because 10% to 15% of people are turning down the offer of a vaccine. Can the Tánaiste confirm that he believes everyone over the age of 18 will be offered a vaccine by the end of June? Will they get one or be offered one? What is being done to encourage the 10% to 15% who are not taking up the offer of a vaccine?

I can confirm that the Government target has not changed. That target is that 82% of adults should either have had one dose, be fully vaccinated or have been offered a vaccine by the end of June.

I was speaking yesterday about the possibility of opening the portal to all adults before the end of June so everyone will be able to book their appointment. They might not have the vaccine by the end of June, but they will certainly have their appointment for it in early July. That may well be achieved because the vaccine programme is going very well and is really ramping up, and I thank the HSE, staff and volunteers for all the work they are doing in that regard, but also because of the reality that there always will be 10% or 15% of people who will choose not to take a vaccine. That is their right and choice but we will continue to encourage them to be vaccinated and provide whatever information and reassurance we can to get those figures up as high as possible. We need to do that.

I do not have any news regarding NIAC at the moment but I understand there will be a decision in the coming days, certainly before Tuesday.

Home Building Finance Ireland was set up by the State to provide funding for small builders to build homes for first-time buyers. We learned from media reports this week that €300 million of State funds channelled to Home Building Finance Ireland has gone to large developers to build homes that are then sold on to investment funds to rent out. In these instances, we are talking about high-end, high-rent developments. Why are State funds earmarked for small builders to provide homes for first-home buyers instead being used to finance large developers to build homes that are then sold on to investment funds?

I will ask the Minister for Finance to give the Deputy a more detailed reply on this, but my understanding from the Minister is that Home Building Finance Ireland, HBFI, was established to do exactly that. It provides finance, which of course has to repaid, to large, medium and small builders to help them fund the construction of new homes for people to buy. My understanding is that there may have been only one case, or a handful of cases, where HBFI invested in a build-to-let investment such as the Deputy described. It was not the norm, did not take place in the majority of cases and was not even commonplace. I am told that the vast majority of money has gone towards build-to-sell developments but, again, I will ask the Minister to clarify that.

Extraordinary powers have been given to the State during this pandemic. Young people up and down the country, but especially in working class communities, are reporting an increased level of harassment by members of the Garda. In a recent report, the Policing Authority states: "Young people were reported as believing that COVID-19 [has] been used by ... Gardaí as an excuse to conduct more stops". The same report stated that student groups described policing in this State as intimidating and negative. It is a fact than more than 50% of Covid fines have been handed out to those aged between 18 and 25.

It is also a fact that we have seen very heavy-handed policing in recent weeks against protest, not least against the Debenhams workers in Waterford, Tralee, the Tánaiste's own area of Blanchardstown, and Henry Street. In a couple of weeks' time, these emergency laws face renewal. These laws are disproportionate and should not be renewed. We are not out of the woods yet on Covid but repression should not be the new normal. Will the Tánaiste indicate whether he will oppose the renewal of those laws?

We have passed some extraordinary laws in this House and signed into law some extraordinary regulations I never thought we would because of the pandemic. We have curtailed people's freedom in a way I never thought we would in the past year or so and we have given the Garda powers to do things I never thought we would give it the power to do. However, this is an unprecedented situation. This is a pandemic and it is not over yet but, in my view, the sooner we can expire those laws the better. I want to see people's individual freedoms and the inviolability of their homes restored and Garda powers returned to what they should be. The Deputy and I may come from a very different angle, philosophically, when it comes to politics but we both share a commitment to individual liberty and personal freedom. The sooner we can get rid of these laws the better.

I raise an issue very pertinent to regional development and housebuilding, which is the forestry industry in the State. At the moment, 1,980 licences awaiting approval by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine from an ecology assessment point of view. At the current rate, it will take two years to clear the backlog, never mind dealing with new applications. The appropriate assessment screening threshold has changed from 3 km to 15 km, which accounts for more than 90% of the applications to be screened. We need a single, workable licence system for the forestry industry. Jobs and the supply chain for native timber are at risk. The price of materials for houses is going up, which is a very important issue, and there is scarcity as a result. We need immediate action on this. We need to see that the farmers who are planting trees know they can fell them. This needs to be taken up as a serious issue.

I agree we need to resolve this issue quickly. Many people in Ireland feel that they can neither plant nor fell a tree. That situation cannot persist for too long. We need the timber for construction and we need to plant more trees in order to help us meet our climate ambitions. The Government accepts that an appropriate assessment procedure is needed for forestry-related licences and we support the ambition of Project Woodland. We continue to implement the Mackinnon report and will continue to uphold the objectives of the forest consent system, the birds and habitat directive, the catchment management approach of the water framework directive and the forest law and enforcement governance trade regulation. The amendments to the appropriate assessment procedure were required due to European Court of Justice and Irish legal rulings relating to the protection of Natura sites. The new procedures involve substantive changes and have been challenging to implement, as they involve a more detailed screening process of all European sites within 15 km of a project area. I will send the rest of the reply to the Deputy.

The CEO of the HSE, the Minister for Health and many other Ministers have said they want the current restrictions on partners visiting maternity hospitals lifted. I wrote to my hospital in south Tipperary, which is an excellent hospital with excellent maternity and neonatal wards. All my children and my eight grandchildren were born there. The letter I received from the hospital stated that it would examine this issue and might make some small changes. Why is there is such dysfunction and such an unlevel playing field? It is accepted that it is hugely important for expectant mothers to have their partners, siblings or somebody with them in that situation, whether the news is bad or good. Hospitals throughout the country are making different decisions. It is time they were instructed. Are they all little independent republics that can do what they like? It is not fair on people. We need consistency throughout the maternity hospitals on visiting for partners who are trying to help during this occasion.

I appreciate this is an ongoing issue causing much distress to people, both mothers and their partners. The national guidance is that partners should be able to attend the birth of their child and the 20-week scan, and should have full access to the neonatal ICU if there are any problems after birth and their child has to be there. It is still possible for hospitals at local level, for their own reasons, to introduce tighter restrictions, but they have to explain why they are doing that. It is not good enough for them to say they are independent republics doing their own thing. If they are not adhering to the national guidance, they need to explain why. Is it because there is an outbreak in the hospital? Is there a good reason they are not adhering to the national guidance, which is that partners should be allowed attend the birth of their child, the 20-week scan appointment and neonatal ICU?

Sligo County Council has written to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, stating that several hundred homes, mainly in rural Sligo, are affected by pyrite. As the Tánaiste knows, this has a catastrophic effect on the stability of homes. Sligo County Council has asked that Sligo be included in the defective concrete blocks grant scheme, which covers 90% of the remediation costs.

This scheme currently operates in Mayo and Donegal. Homeowners in south and west Sligo look across the border to Mayo and in north Sligo they look across the border to Donegal and see a Government-funded remedial scheme for pyrite while their own homes crumble around their ears and they have no assistance. Will the Tánaiste give a commitment that these homeowners in Sligo will be included in the scheme? If he cannot give that, will he commit to a speedy, positive response to the request through Sligo County Council?

I cannot give the Deputy a commitment right here right now but I will certainly speak to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, about it. I am familiar with the issue with pyrite and mica. Pyrite occurred in my constituency and people were included in the assistance scheme. I have been in houses with mica in them in Donegal and I worked very hard with the former Minister, Deputy Joe McHugh, to get that scheme in place. If the situation is the same for people in Sligo as for those in Mayo and Donegal, I do not see why they would not be included in the scheme. That would be natural justice. Perhaps there is a reason I do not know of but I will bring it up with the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, and make sure the Deputy gets a reply in the very near future.

I ask all Deputies to comply with the time or their colleagues will not get in.

I raise the issue of vaccination centres in Limerick. We currently have the Radisson vaccination centre. I got my Covid-19 vaccination in the Radisson centre this morning. I compliment the phenomenal work being done by the HSE and the volunteer staff. It was very efficient. We have a very successful roll-out in Limerick at the moment. There is speculation that the centre will be moved to the Limerick Racecourse in Patrickswell from the Radisson. Can the Tánaiste confirm that that is to happen and when precisely it will happen?

Second, last week in the Dáil I got a commitment from the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, that they would look at putting a shuttle service on from Limerick city to the Radisson. I know there is a proposal in with Paul Reid. Can the Tánaiste confirm that shuttle will be up and running?

I remember when the vaccine programme started in January, the Deputy raised this issue and was of the view that the racecourse would be a better site for a vaccine centre than the Radisson Blu Hotel, because the latter is hard to access. I am advised that the vaccine centre will move out of the Radisson Blu Hotel, which will go back to being a hotel, and will be relocated to the Limerick Racecourse, which will be more accessible to people, particularly those who do not have access to a car. I do not know the arrangements in terms of a shuttle bus but I will take it up with the CEO of the HSE and see if it can be done. I do not have the date for the relocation of the centre from the Radisson Blu Hotel to the racecourse but I can confirm it is happening and an announcement will be made soon.

I bring up the issue of the slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza. We need to accept the disparity between a huge military power like Israel and the Palestinian people. We have also had the de facto annexation and stealing of Palestinian land. We can only consider this a continuity of a plan for Israeli expansion. What will the Government propose in relation to our seat on the UN Security Council and in relation to the EU, which took action on the Crimea? How will we use our relationship with Joe Biden? We need a change in how the administration in America operates. This needs to be done. South African apartheid was broken by international solidarity and sanctions. It became a pariah state. This needs to be done for Israel and everything has to be on the agenda, even consideration in relation to the ambassador here.

I will not continue interrupting. The time for everybody is up to one minute. If Deputies can be briefer, that is great. We are using up time on Deputies' colleagues.

This matter was discussed earlier on. To recap, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, has made a clear and strong statement on this matter on behalf of the Government. We will use our influence on the UN Security Council, which will meet on this quite soon. The Israeli ambassador has been called in for some very difficult discussions with the Minister. We intend to co-ordinate further action at an EU level.

On page 47 of the programme for Government, reference is made to improving public health, focusing on primary care. Dental services for medical card patients in the county I come from, County Laois, have collapsed. There is no service for adults in Laois. Only one dentist operates under the dental treatment services scheme, DTSS. I have a list that we rang around earlier in the week to see if we could get anyone. We have been at this for weeks to see if we could get dentists to take it. Only one is dealing with existing patients and none will take new patients. Sixteen have resigned in Laois-Offaly in the past 12 months; eight since March. The dental scheme is not being resourced and the system has collapsed. There is no DTSS in County Laois for medical card holders at the moment. Separately, there is no dental scheme-----

Very briefly, one sentence. There is no dental scheme for primary school children. I raised this with the Tánaiste seven years ago when he was Minister for Health.

We are over time. I thank the Deputy. I call the Tánaiste.

They are in secondary school and are 14 years of age before they are seen. It is third world country stuff. I appeal to the Tánaiste to bring this to the attention of the Minister for Health and to try to get it dealt with.

We have tried a new system. It is in place until July. Many Deputies will not get in today now. They will have to take it up with the Ceann Comhairle and his office.

There is a dispute under way between dentists and the HSE and the Department of Health in relation to the DTSS. That is causing a break of services in some parts of the country, including, I understand, County Laois. We are keen to have that issue resolved as soon as possible and have the DTSS restored. I will inform the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, that the Deputy has raised concerns in relation to Laois.

In the programme for Government, there is reference to an inclusive vision for education. Inclusion in and access to education is the foundation for a more just and equal society. I raise the issue of Riversdale Community College and Danu Community Special School. There is a strong desire to support each other. Particularly, the Riversdale board of management supports Danu Community Special School in its desire for a new school on the large seven-acre grounds it has. However, there is shock and anger at the turn of events that will result in Riversdale losing over one third of the school permanently. The education and training board, ETB, has broken a promise made to Danu and Riversdale. The list of classes and support rooms that will be lost is of concern and includes the parents room, the art room, science rooms, counselling rooms etc. The school is also being forced to move into a darker side of the building. The Riversdale Community College board of management and parents-----

I thank the Deputy.

-----along with the teaching staff, are concerned about the future of the school. I ask the Minister-----

No, Tánaiste to respond.

-----to appeal to the ETB to go back to their original agreement with Riversdale and Danu.

We are over the time. The question has to be put before the minute is up.

The original plan was, as the Deputy described, that Danu would move into part of Riversdale Community College temporarily and a new building would be built either for the school or for Danu. I still think that is the right response and I know the Deputy and all the Deputies in the area do too. I still think that is the solution we will work towards and I am working with the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and the ETB on that. The school is being very generous in allowing Danu to move in to part of the school but it should not be permanent. We should be able to build a new building on that large site. That would be a solution for everyone.

I raise an important issue at St. Mary's Special School in Navan, County Meath, which is attended by 80 kids with mild to severe needs. Parents have been told that, from 1 September, hot meals will no longer be provided. This service has been in place for the last sixteen years. The community employment, CE, scheme is no longer providing staff, at the direction of the Department of Social Protection. At this school, the complex functional needs of kids are addressed. St. Mary's is a fantastic school and the staff are excellent. However, this is not just about the provision of a free meal. There is so much more to it. They learn to set the table, use a knife and fork, manners at the table and cleaning up afterwards. The school should be treated the same as a DEIS school.

This decision is shocking and hits the most vulnerable in society. It is an easy target once again. This impacts children right across County Meath. I ask the Tánaiste to get in touch with the Department of Social Protection and get this decision reversed.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. I am not familiar with the details but I will inform the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, that the matter was raised on the floor of the Dáil and ask her to communicate with the Deputy directly.

With each passing day we are witnessing more and more brutality, aggression and murder being carried out by the apartheid state of Israel. The line we hear repeatedly from the Government is that of support for the two-state solution, yet the Irish State does not recognise the state of Palestine. In February 1980, Ireland was the first EU member state to call for the establishment of a Palestinian state, yet we are still waiting. We recognise the racist, apartheid state of Israel, so when will Ireland recognise the state of Palestine?

I thank Deputy Andrews for staying within the time.

The Government is committed to a two-state solution in the Middle East - a peaceful, democratic Israel living alongside a peaceful, democratic Palestine. We are committed to recognising Palestinian statehood at the right time, when that state is established, following agreement to establish it. That is the position of the Government currently.

I want to raise the vaccination centre we have in the mid-west region, which serves Limerick city. We previously raised the issue. The centre was not actually in Limerick city, it was in County Clare and I understand from HSE contacts this morning that it is moving shortly to the racecourse in Patrickswell. That would make it more difficult for people in the city to access the vaccination centre. The one in the Radisson hotel was working well and while there were problems, there was public transport to it. As there is no public transport to the racecourse that I am aware of, will the Government commit to making sure there is a shuttle bus? All Deputies from the mid-west region have been inundated with calls from people who had problems accessing the vaccine at the previous centre. Will the Government commit to providing some sort of shuttle transfers for people to get to the vaccination centre?

I am told that the racecourse is more accessible to more people than the Radisson hotel is, but I guess it depends on where one is living and what one's mode of transport is. Like Deputy O'Donnell earlier, the Deputy has raised the need for a shuttle bus in order that people can get to the racecourse, and in the interim get to the Radisson hotel until the move happens. I am happy to raise that with the CEO of the HSE. I will do that this week. I cannot commit to it being done but I will certainly make sure that the HSE is aware of the request.

I want to raise an issue on behalf of small and micro companies, which we all know make up approximately 98% of companies in Ireland. I want to query in particular the progress in putting in place a dedicated rescue process for small and micro companies. I note the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, who has responsibility for company regulation, has secured Government approval for priority drafting of the companies Bill 2021. I would welcome progress on that and I would appreciate if the Tánaiste could outline to the House the proposed new dedicated rescue process.

The small company administrative rescue process, SCARP, received Government approval at the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday. It is intended to get the legislation into the Dáil and Seanad as soon as possible and to have the matter legislated for before the summer recess, thus allowing that option to be in place for small businesses that can survive if they are allowed to restructure. It is intended to have that in place by the autumn. It is, if you like, a personal insolvency regime for small companies and is an alternative to the expensive examinership process through the High Court. If we can get the legislation done by the recess, we can get it in place for the autumn.

I wish to raise with the Tánaiste the North Quays development in Waterford city, which the Tánaiste is aware is an important project. It is an iconic project that will transform the centre of Waterford city for generations. As he knows, there was a partnership between Waterford City and County Council and Falcon Real Estate Development, which has hit a brick wall. My understanding is that the CEO of the council will be making an announcement today at the full plenary session of the council and it is not good news about the relationship. It looks like an alternative investor will need to come on board. Significant funding has been put on the table by the State through the urban regeneration development fund, which I welcome. If this relationship breaks down, I ask that breathing space be given by the Department and the Government to the local authority to allow it to find alternative investors, given the importance of this project. Could the Tánaiste give that reassurance today?

I was not aware of that. If it is the case that the investor is pulling out, that is very bad and disappointing news. I suppose we should wait to see what the announcement says. If it is as the Deputy says, that is very disappointing news for the region. He can be assured that the Government is still behind this project. This is really important to the future of Waterford city and the south east. The Government will allow time and space to either repair relations with the investor or find an alternative one. I cannot give the Deputy a limitless commitment but I can certainly give him the commitment that the Government is committed to this project and will allow time and space for alternative funding to be found or an alternative investor to be found, if that is what is required.

I have three speakers left. With their permission I will take the three of them and if the Tánaiste is happy to do it, he can reply to them together. There is not enough time to let everybody in. Deputy O'Rourke will get in for a few seconds but there will be no reply. I ask for the co-operation of Deputies O'Rourke, Boyd Barrett and Munster. I will give each Deputy 30 seconds to put their question if they are in agreement with that. Agreed.

I have a straight question for the Tánaiste. Taxi drivers are in need of a dedicated survival and recovery package that reflects the challenges in their industry. A number of measures have been introduced but taxi drivers have not been able to avail of the vast majority of them. They got a licence waiver of €150. There has been speculation and promises about a hardship fund to capture those sectors that have not been able to avail of supports so far. Is that going to come and when will it come?

I thank the Deputy for his brevity.

The Tánaiste mentioned the Israeli ambassador. I was at the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence this morning and the ambassador came in with a brazen and really outrageous defence of the ethnic cleansing that Israel is engaging in against the people of Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem and the murder of innocent children in Gaza, where 17 children have been killed so far and more than 70 people in total. Given the outrageous breaches of international law, is it not time to expel the Israeli ambassador and to impose sanctions on the rogue state of Israel for its crimes against international law and against humanity in Palestine?

There are concerns in the hospitality industry that a two-tier industry is emerging based on the reopening plan signed off by the Government. Hotels and guest houses will be able to operate indoor dining from the first day they open on 2 June. Restaurants and pubs that serve food and cafes will operate outdoor dining only from 7 June, with no date for indoor dining. The industry is also looking for clarity as to how indoor dining can be deemed safe in hotels and guest houses but not in other businesses that serve food. Is the Tánaiste in a position to give a date for the reopening of indoor dining in restaurants, gastropubs and cafes in order for them to plan and recruit staff, among other things?

I met the representative groups of taxi drivers and I have met them individually. I appreciate the devastating impact the pandemic has had on them. As Deputy O'Rourke is aware, they are entitled to the pandemic unemployment payment and can still earn income while drawing that down. There is an enterprise grant when they come off the pandemic unemployment payment and I believe fees are being waived too. I appreciate that more will need to be done for them and they may need an individual package of some sort. I am in discussions with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, about that.

In response to Deputy Boyd Barrett's question on Israel, as I said earlier, we have had a very strong statement from the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney. We will be using our position on the UN Security Council and in the EU to advocate for further action and joint action, but that is something we have to do around the table first.

Finally, on the issue of hospitality, I understand the annoyance around the disparity between hotels and restaurants but we must bear in mind that, since day one, even during level 5 and during the worst period of the pandemic, we allowed hotels to serve meals to their guests in their restaurants, so we do not want to take that away now. However, I appreciate that now creates a disparity between hotels and restaurants. I anticipate that will only last for a few weeks, and we are aiming for indoor dining to resume in July, but a lot can happen between now and then.