An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

The House has agreed that for the duration of the emergency only, the report of the Business Committee will be taken as read. Arising from it, there are three proposals to put to the House today. Is the proposal for dealing with Tuesday's business agreed to?

I have a question on the addition of the debate on the cyberattack. The additional item has been welcomed by most Members but it has added more than two hours to the agenda today, meaning that the Dáil is not going to rise until 12.30 a.m. How can this item be added to the agenda when something else Members wish to add cannot be added because of Covid restrictions? I wonder whether the Covid restrictions exist. What is the story in this regard?

The revelation that Ireland Strategic Investment Fund was financing cuckoo funds is really quite shocking. I am referring to the financing of entities that are worsening the housing crisis, pricing people out of the market and charging extortionate rents. In many cases, the State and the people pay again, with local authorities leasing properties from the same entities.

We cannot have a long debate about it now.

My point is that we need an explanation. Hundreds of millions of euro in public money are involved in financing these entities. We need a detailed explanation immediately this week.

Has the Deputy a proposal?

I am proposing that the Minister come in here and give us an explanation stating precisely how much money was invested and the rationale behind the investment.

That is fine. The Deputy has made his proposal.

I too am objecting to the House sitting tonight until 12.30 a.m. When we are trying to talk about a staff-friendly environment, those hours are crazy. We need to be staffed earlier or do something else.

I am objecting to the business on the basis that the theory test situation is absolutely laughable. I have raised this here with the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Minister for Transport. Someone needs to get a hold on this. Businesses and farmers cannot survive and young people cannot go to work.

There is nothing on the theory test on the Order of Business for today.

I want a debate on it. I want the Minister for Transport to come in here, get the Road Safety Authority to cop on and allow the theory test to be restarted.

In light of the news that has broken in the past 15 minutes that 81 cabin crew and 45 ground staff are to be laid off by Aer Lingus at its Shannon base, I ask that the Ministers for Transport and Finance address the House this week to discuss a job survival package, not only for Shannon Airport but also for all the rest of our airports. What has been predicted is now happening and livelihoods are being lost and destroyed. I ask that this matter be added to our agenda at some point this week as a matter of urgency.

It is reported that the Dáil is sitting here at a cost of €25,000 per day. That is a shockingly high figure considering what is happening throughout the country. It is no longer acceptable, if it ever was. A special school in my constituency no longer has the funding to provide hot meals to its children while the Dáil is spending €5,000 on a Members' restaurant here in the convention centre. We need to have a date on which we can get back to Leinster House. A large number of Members are vaccinated. There should be a practical solution for us so we do not have to pay the sum I have mentioned daily.

When are we going to have a debate on what the State's aviation policy is? When can we even find out what it is? There are announcements from the Tánaiste every day that contradict each other. There are announcements from all the members of the Taoiseach's Cabinet that contradict each other constantly. We do not have an aviation policy or aviation recovery plan. We need one before it is too late. It is already too late for my constituency. The Taoiseach's is next. He might not care much about the rest of the country but if he cares about his own legacy-----

Has the Deputy a proposal?

He talks about Fianna Fáil. One thing Fianna Fáil built was Shannon Airport but the Taoiseach is going to take it down around him.

I support the proposal by Deputy Duncan Smith on aviation.

I wrote to the Business Committee this week looking for time for the Minister for Finance to come to the Dáil to answer questions on the hundreds of millions of euro in State funds that are being used to invest in investment funds that are buying up houses, pushing up rents and driving out first-time buyers.

The Minister for Finance has refused and declined to answer questions, with €500 million going to Activate Capital, which is involved in this, so he should come into the House to answer questions on this.

I support the request made by Deputy Cian O'Callaghan. The Minister should absolutely come into the Chamber this week to deal with that matter. It is repugnant to the families who have been squeezed out of the housing market that that has happened.

I want to put on the record that all of the parties at the Business Committee last Thursday asked that we would get back to the Dáil Chamber. We need to get our Dáil business back there. The reality is that Deputies are present at Leinster House and the Convention Centre on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, so there are no public health grounds remaining at this stage to keep us in the Convention Centre, certainly on Tuesday and Thursday. Hopefully that will be resolved this Thursday.

It is interesting how times move fairly quickly here. Deputies Duncan Smith, Cian O'Callaghan and McNamara raised aviation policy. To be fair to Deputy McNamara, he has had a consistent approach to Covid-19 from the get-go, which if he does not mind me saying so, is probably on the more civil libertarian wing, and he was never a great enthusiast for the Covid regulations per se.

It is also about jobs and livelihoods.

I am just putting on the record how I perceive the Deputy's contributions. I say to Deputies Smith and O'Callaghan that they were the guys looking for mandatory hotel quarantine, which impacts on aviation.

That is very simplistic.

It is not simplistic. You attacked the Government. Your leader attacked the Government - could not do it quick enough.

No, that is not the issue.

He could not have zero Covid quick enough about two months ago.

That is disingenuous.

It is two months on. Of course there is an issue. There are consequences arising out of Covid-19 and the measures that we take to deal with Covid-19. Without question, aviation has been a significant casualty because of the virus and measures that have been taken which have not facilitated travel. That is simple and the correct position. You cannot have it both ways.

I am not having it both ways.

The Deputy cannot come into the House and attack the Government for not moving quickly enough on mandatory hotel quarantine, and I remember the debates well and the fervour with which those debates were articulated-----

Taoiseach, we cannot really have a debate about these matters.

-----and now, moving forward, say we do not have an aviation policy. We do and the Government will bring forward an approach to the travel issue that will be consistent with the European digital green certificate framework that the Commission, in parallel with the Parliament and the Council, has been working on. We will follow through on that. We have no issue with debating that in the House. The Government will be finalising its proposals on that next week in terms of the broader travel issue. The Government has supported airports and airlines through various instruments and mechanisms, but the greatest damage to travel and tourism and to aviation has been the virus. That is unfortunately the reality.

We cannot have a lengthy debate.

Regarding the lateness of the hour this evening, the Chief Whip said that was at the request of the Business Committee, with members and other parties wanting to discuss the cyberattack on the HSE and the restoration of service as quickly as possible. I understand that was requested at the Business Committee.

(Interruptions).

Do Members want to drop that? That was what I understood the Chief Whip had said.

To be clear on that matter, a special notice question was tabled and the Government, as I understand it, decided that it would facilitate the debate on this by allowing for 110 minutes, which has been added to the end of the day.

I think that is reasonable, given the gravity and seriousness of the attack itself.

Deputy Tóibín raised the issue of hot meals in schools. An expanded scheme has been provided for that this year. I do not know whether that necessitates changing the agenda or not. We can get the Minister to respond to Deputies about that point.

On the broader point regarding Covid, that is a matter for the House and the Government does not dictate where the Dáil meets.

That may be a matter for the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. I am not sure of the mechanisms within the Oireachtas.

I would be very surprised if there was any Member of this House or anyone else with an interest in politics who was not aware that we came here reluctantly and that we have stayed here reluctantly.

All of this has been done on the basis of the best public health advice available to us. As long as that advice encourages us to remain here, we will have to consider doing so. When the advice tells us to revert to Leinster House, that is what we will do. If people want to go sooner, we will have to balance that wish against the public health advice we are being given.

I fully accept that, a Cheann Comhairle. I endorse and agree with what you are saying but Deputy Mac Lochlainn was looking at me plaintively as if I could do something about it. I was just making the point that you have responded to public health-----

The Taoiseach is doing stand-up now.

I sincerely doubt that Deputy Mac Lochlainn ever looks plaintively at the Taoiseach.

We have debated this matter to death. Is the proposal for dealing with Tuesday's business agreed to? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with Wednesday's business agreed to? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with Thursday's business agreed to? Agreed.

As the Taoiseach will be aware, thousands of families in Donegal and Mayo have been devastated by the presence of mica and pyrite in the structure of their homes. I met many of these families last year. I would struggle to describe to the Taoiseach the level of stress and trauma they have endured. Unfortunately, rather than making available to them a fully funded scheme which would cover 100% of costs, as was the case with the pyrite remediation scheme, the last Government presented these families in Donegal and Mayo with a take-it-or-leave-it offer of a scheme that would cover 90% of costs. That Government anticipated that the financial institutions would provide assistance. The real contributions these families have to make towards the cost of restoring their homes can be anything up to 50% of what are very considerable costs. The banks are nowhere to be seen. I urge the Taoiseach to fund fully the defective concrete blocks grant scheme and to have it cover 100% of costs. That is the least these families in Donegal and Mayo deserve.

I ask the Taoiseach to be brief in his reply.

The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage has met with a representative group. I believe this meeting was in February. He asked for a submission on its proposals in respect of the scheme, a scheme which had been committed to and which has been up and running since last year. He got that submission towards the end of April. He is now going to consider the proposals. He is due to meet with the group again on Thursday. He will give every consideration to the submission the representative group has made.

With regard to the existing scheme, the maximum grants under each of the five remedial options range from €49,500 to €247,500. It is estimated the scheme could cost up to €1 billion over the next decade, between now and 2030. The Minister will meet with the group.

I am unique in having asked a number of questions regarding the IT infrastructure of the HSE and the security thereof in 2019 and 2020. At the end of 2020, 37,000 computers had not been upgraded from Windows 7. The year before, the number was even greater. This was only a few months ago. I ask the Taoiseach directly whether this was a component in the malware attack. There has to be a difference between the Department of Health and the HSE because the Department was able to deal with this attack through its security systems but the HSE was not. Was it because the systems were out of date? Given the vacuum with regard to the details of this issue, in which I take a great interest, I ask the Taoiseach that question directly. Is there any connection? Was the post of head of information security in the HSE, which was meant to be filled last September, filled? In the coming days, will the Taoiseach give a briefing on this issue directly to the leaders of the Opposition parties? If it had been any other form of attack on our county, we would have been getting detailed information.

A briefing will be offered. In fact, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, was contacting his counterparts this afternoon to facilitate such a briefing. We can facilitate a briefing with leaders and we intend to do so. With regard to the specific questions the Deputy has asked, it is still far too early to identify the entry point or the manner or nature of this attack.

Yes, it is. There are people working on this and we will, in the fullness of time, have a full report on it. Obviously, the containment, repair, remedy, restoration and assessment of this are currently ongoing in terms of the impact of the attack. The briefing will be comprehensive. Hopefully, we can do it before the close of business.

The State has provided €500 million to Activate Capital, among the investments of which is housing at Blackhall Place that was built by a private developer and is being leased to Dublin City Council for approximately €2,000 per month per home. Why is the State providing funding to developers to build homes that will be leased to the State at such rents? Effectively, the State is providing the original finance and double guaranteeing the scheme by paying the mortgages without owning the homes at the end.

Is the Deputy referring to the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund?

If he is, the Government does not get involved. The Government has no direct involvement in its decisions in terms of its investments.

I will make a broader point. Capital is important to create building and to get housing and residential units going. The State provides the bulk of it right now in terms of allocating funding to local authorities and approved housing bodies to get housing built. Our preference is for direct builds. We want to get as much social housing provided as we possibly can. Over the years, there have been other types of development that have been facilitated, such as student accommodation, through a variety of means. We need to get supply up overall. There is a role for both public investment and private investment in respect of getting the overall supply of residential units into the marketplace.

Over the past eight days, the state of Israel has rained terror and murder on the people of Gaza. In those eight days, more than 200 people have been killed, including 60 children, murdered for doing nothing, murdered because they were Palestinian. The world is watching while the state of Israel conducts collective punishment against the Palestinian people on occupied lands. When is the right time to expel the Israeli ambassador to Ireland? If it is not now, when will it be? This has been going on for generations. The Israeli Government, with impunity, has murdered and caused terror to the Palestinian people. We in Ireland should know. We have been occupied and brutalised by another oppressor. When is the time to expel the Israeli ambassador and show solidarity with the world and the Palestinian people?

Can I first of all say that we have consistently as a Government called for an immediate ceasefire in Palestine and the Middle East? We have condemned the rocket firing by Hamas, which needs to be condemned as well and should not have happened. It killed children and other people as well, but the response from the Israeli Government has been wholly disproportionate and indiscriminate and has resulted in the killing of innocent civilians - children and many, many more. In my view, that response is not justifiable. It is unacceptable in terms of its brutality and ruthlessness. Hence, in my view, the violence should cease. Gaza is highly densely populated. When one bombs at that level and scale, it is inevitable that innocent families and people will be killed. Of that there is no doubt. An immediate ceasefire is essential. Hamas should cease firing rockets into Israel and Israel should desist from what I would describe as its wholly disproportionate response.

Will the Government expel the ambassador?

The Taoiseach shares my regret at the decision by An Taisce to object to and appeal the planning permission for a continental cheese factory at Belview, near Waterford, a move that is damaging the economy of the south east.

In An Taisce's observations, it does not query the water treatment on site but, rather, it appears to be signalling its ideological resistance to any intensification of the dairy sector in Ireland. My colleagues in the Regional Group and I have tabled amendments to the climate Bill, first to separate biogenic methane from the overall greenhouse gas calculation and second to require that future sectoral reductions be decided by the whole of the Dáil, not just the line Minister. Our agricultural sector cannot be a soft target in terms of sectoral greenhouse gas reductions in future climate policy. Will the Government give security in regard to future sectoral caps?

The climate change Bill is comprehensive legislation that is groundbreaking and a landmark in terms of this country turning a corner in meeting its climate change needs and agenda. It aligns with the targets also being set in Europe. It is very important legislation that creates a framework for further action. It can create opportunity as well in terms of jobs in the new green economy and in other areas in terms of adding value to production on the land and more efficient farming. It has to be said that Irish farming, both dairy and beef, is one of the most efficient in Europe and, indeed, across the globe.

I rise to ask about the situation regarding a new Garda station in Clonmel for our hard-working gardaí under Superintendent Willie Leahy. This issue was first raised in the House by the late Deputy Seán Treacy more than 50 years ago and, indeed, the late Councillor Ambrose, who was laid to rest last week was often on about it. We are waiting and waiting. The station is in a bundle or package of three or four but we cannot wait. It is a Dickensian building not fit for the Garda or the public. We have had many reports and false dawns. When are we going to see the construction of the new Garda station? We have planning permission for an elaborate building and we have a site. When will we get the green light to allow the gardaí to have a proper premises in which to conduct their business?

I thank the Deputy. I want to place on record my deepest sympathies to the Ambrose family on the death of Tom, who was a very dedicated and long-serving public representative. He was a great champion of Clonmel, with great commitment to its cause and to Tipperary more generally.

In terms of the specifics of the Garda station, I will talk to the Minister for Justice in regard to that. There is a substantial capital programme in the Department of Justice in regard to the renovation and construction of Garda stations. I will get a response on that for the Deputy.

I agree with the Taoiseach that the pandemic has placed unprecedented pressure on the aviation sector. That is why many other European Governments have taken an equity shareholding in airlines. The Government declined to do so. It is why many of them have introduced antigen testing. The Government has obtained a report on it but declined to do so. It is why no other country in Europe has introduced mandatory hotel quarantining for European citizens. The Government blamed the Labour Party for that but no----

We did not.

You blamed Deputy Duncan Smith just a couple of minutes ago. Neither the Taoiseach nor any of the Government Deputies or Senators voted against it, although they are now busy in County Clare trying to tell people they were against it from the start. However, that is the past. What future does the Taoiseach offer the people of Clare in terms of connectivity with Aer Lingus and the workers of Aer Lingus today? What is he now going to do about aviation in this country?

The Deputy's time is up.

Why are we so out of synch with the rest of the world?

First, we are not out of synch with the rest of the world.

Yes, we are. Do not mislead the House.

Deputy, please.

For God's sake Taoiseach, tell the truth at least.

Through the Chair, there were hardly four words out of my mouth and there was an unacceptable intervention. The bottom line is that we have supported aviation and we want to support aviation. We have supported the airlines and we want to continue to support the airlines. It is very sad and difficult news for those workers being laid off today. I do not make any political capital out of that but I can tell the Deputy this much-----

I am not making political capital out of it.

I am not saying you are. Would you stop?

Do not accuse me of seeking political capital.

I am not accusing you-----

I have raised this issue constructively for 12 months.

Deputy McNamara is out of order.

I am not accusing you of that. I am saying that I do not want to. That is what I am saying.

I do not want to either, but I want answers.

I am saying that we have responded and we are going to respond to the aviation issue. The aviation industry has been negatively undermined by the virus.

The Deputy knows that and I know that.

Thank you, a Thaoisigh. We are moving on.

Workers have been laid off because people are not travelling. We will develop a strategy. Shouting and roaring will not solve the matter.

I wish to raise again the issue of some doctors charging medical card patients for blood tests. I am constantly raising this issue. These are very vulnerable people. I have people ringing my clinic saying they cannot afford to pay for their blood tests. They have medical cards. More than 1 million people have a medical card and, although they can ask for a refund of these charges from the HSE, since 2017 only 21 refunds have been given. That is unacceptable. People with medical cards should not have to pay to have their bloods taken. It is unacceptable and unfair. They are very vulnerable people. Now we even have the added issue that those seeking a medical card will have to wait because of the cyberattack. I understand that the HSE is doing its very best. As for any delays outpatients or other people are experiencing, communication will be the key. We have to make sure we communicate with those vulnerable people who need to know where they stand.

The Deputy has been fighting this issue for a considerable time and standing up for those who do not have the wherewithal to pay these additional ad hoc charges. I will again engage with the Minister for Health to get a uniform, consistent approach from the health service to the issue of charging for blood tests, particularly for medical card holders. I will come back to the Deputy again on that.

We had devastating breaking news at lunchtime that Aer Lingus, having operated its Shannon base for seven decades, has announced it will now permanently close its base there, with 81 cabin crew offered severance or transfer to its Dublin base and a similar impact for the 45 ground crew. I ask the State to intervene in this matter for jobs, for connectivity and for our region. This is absolutely devastating beyond belief. I ask that from the heart of the Government the Taoiseach says something positive today about engagement and how he and the Cabinet can lead and negotiate with Aer Lingus. We need them in the region. We need that connectivity out of Shannon Airport.

I fully accept the Deputy's point about the absolute necessity to engage and to get international travel back up and running again. International connectivity is vital for the economic well-being of the country and remains a priority for the Government. I assure the Deputy of that. The news today coming from Shannon is very sad. Regarding Cork and other areas, travel has been at rock bottom and at very low levels. Developments in this regard are ongoing, and next week the Government will decide on the broader issue of travel and participation in the digital green certificate. We are making progress on that front, and that is central to the plan for reopening later in the summer in respect of the aviation industry.

I ask the Taoiseach to act on the waiting list for autism spectrum disorder, ASD, assessments in Wexford and throughout the State. The reply to a recent parliamentary question revealed that 436 children have been waiting well over 12 months for an ASD assessment in Wexford alone. These holistic supports cannot be put in place if families are left waiting for up to four years for an assessment. This is causing years of setbacks for the children and puts the parents and siblings under duress. I urge the Taoiseach and the Government to address this emergency in Wexford and throughout the country. Children with special needs and their families deserve proper assessment services.

I agree with the Deputy, and the Government allocated substantial resources this year through the Department of the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, to increase dramatically the number of assessments. There was a long backlog over the years but this Government is determined to eat into it, reduce it significantly and give people not only the assessments they require in a timely manner but also access to services more generally.

Vaccines are already paying dividends in society. This week people in their 40s will be invited to register for their vaccinations, which is hugely welcome news and progress. We are all very encouraged to hear the Chief Medical Officer telling vaccinated people to begin their lives again with caution and to trust in the vaccines. In that context, will the Taoiseach consider excluding fully vaccinated people from the number of people allowed to attend wedding services and receptions? Allowing wedding guests to avail of the vaccine bonus would make a major difference to couples deciding between having friends and having family members at their very special day.

I fully acknowledge the challenges for people getting married. The Covid restrictions have been very severe on wedding couples. The numbers are very low. This stemmed from public health advice at the outset of the pandemic that weddings initially had been a significant factor in the spread of the disease. That said, we are now progressively reopening society. We are making progress against the virus. We are suppressing the numbers and keeping the incidence at a certain level. The vaccination program is working and is having a great impact on reducing severe illness, deaths, hospitalisations and the numbers being treated in ICUs. In that context, towards the end of this month we will see what more we can do for the months of June and July, as I have been saying consistently since we began lifting restrictions.

That concludes questions on promised legislation with six Deputies unfortunately not reached.