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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 20 May 2021

Vol. 1007 No. 4

Questions on Promised Legislation

Before I have to give out, if Members can take a minute or less with contributions, more colleagues will be able to get in.

I raise a matter that is affecting thousands of families and homeowners in my county and County Mayo. It is a problem not of their own making and it concerns defective concrete blocks or the mica crisis. It has resulted in thousands of homeowners watching their houses crumble before their very eyes. It is absolutely heartbreaking to see. It is abundantly clear the redress scheme that was introduced in January last year is not fit for purpose as the difference between the grant payable and the cost of the works required is beyond the reach of so many families in my county, with some having to contribute up to €100,000 themselves. Indeed, we have seen a number of cases where the figure is substantially more. Many people are unable to even afford the initial assessment costs.

Those affected by the mica scandal are confronted with a redress scheme that does not meet or cannot achieve its aims and it must be reformed. The pyrite scheme in Dublin and north Leinster provided 100% costs-----

Thank you, Deputy.

-----in affected homes. Will the Government support the mica redress scheme providing the same level of redress?

Thank you, Deputy.

What action will the Government take to improve the scheme and resolve this matter for nearly 6,000 families across those two counties?

If we proceed like this, I will have to keep coming in and it is not good for any of us. Many colleagues will not get to contribute. One minute is the maximum.

I join in Deputy Doherty's concern for those households where people's homes have such a fundamental problem. I introduced a scheme in June last year. As I understand it, there are differences between what happened to properties on the east coast and what happened in the Donegal and Mayo areas. I do not have the details, but it appears to be a much more extensive problem, with higher costs and much greater difficulties. I have heard from other Deputies about this problem and I commit to talking to the Minister to see about a review of the current scheme and if it is not working and not solving the problem for householders, to go back to see what sort of revision needs to be put in place to make sure it meets the needs of the householders involved. This has happened through no fault of their own and not through their actions in any way. We do have to address the problems.

In the last few minutes, The Irish Times journalist Conor Lally referred to Bloomberg reports that those who have hacked into the HSE system are threatening to publish a mass amount of data online by next Monday, 24 May. The Minister may not be aware of this. What are we doing to prepare for this? The Minister, Deputy Ryan, organised a meeting yesterday with key Departments, and I thank him for that, but we all need to see a plan. What are people who are watching today, or those working for the HSE, to do when they have questions? We need an information line and we need information online. This is rapidly turning into a national security crisis for our country. What is the plan?

I presume that a vulnerability assessment and penetration test, VAPT, is being done by the National Cyber Security Centre, NCSC, or is being organised by the NCSC across all State bodies and Departments to ensure they are not hacked also.

I ask the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for a slightly longer time to respond to this question, because it is an important issue, and to give me a bit of time to explain. A lot of people are concerned.

It might come up again.

I very much appreciated the meeting we had yesterday where Deputy Kelly and other Deputies were briefed by An Garda Síochána on the cybersecurity system issue, which is of huge consequence for our health system, for individuals and for families. Subsequent to yesterday's meeting, the Minister for Justice, the Minister for Health and I had a meeting yesterday afternoon. We took up some of the suggestions from our earlier meeting. We will establish a helpline, which will be a confidential crime-line type system, for people if they are in any way approached. We must be careful about some of the rumours around this, which is full of subterfuge and all sorts of unknowns. If a person is approached by anyone claiming to have medical or other relevant data, we will provide a crime-line type confidential system where the person can get safe advice on what he or she needs to do. The Government Information Service will provide details on this later on. That advice line will also help to give us information on the information being published. I will come back to the issue if there are further questions.

Each topic is equally important to the Deputy tabling it. There are other ways of dealing with the more serious issues or those issues that need more time.

Tusla and its systems have also been shut down as a result of this cyber attack. I welcome the discussions the Minister is having about the HSE but it feels to me that Tusla and child protection issues are being forgotten in this debate. Concerns have been raised by social workers in the media today that the shutdown means child protection risk issues and the risk of very sensitive child abuse documentation being breached and leaked to the Internet. I tried to get the Business Committee to bring in the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, next week to discuss this, but it refused to allow that, which is very unfortunate.

As the Minister with responsible for the cybersecurity centre, has he been specifically briefed on child protection risks and the impacts on Tusla? When does the Minister believe the Tusla system will become active again?

Yes is the answer to that. We have engaged constantly since last Friday morning. There is a whole range of different issues of real concern. Absolutely centre stage in that is Tusla and its information systems that were connected to the HSE networks.

To go further in response to Deputy Kelly, our second measure is to contact our media and social media companies to say that if anyone propagates any information, some of which is most sensitive, and which is real possibility, on the dark web or other such sites, that we do not further propagate it or share the information and that we do no further damage or increase any harm that would be done. If someone has the data it is impossible to stop the release of it completely. There is a range of different sites and one cannot completely stop it. However, we can minimise and protect to the best of our ability by reducing the sharing of that information. That is one of the further elements we need to do.

It is interesting to note that the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and the Attorney General are on the same page when it comes to liquid natural gas, LNG, and fracked gas. The Minister said, "I remain as determined as ever to halt the damage caused by fracking." While saying he opposes LNG and fracked gas, he also says that he cannot do anything about it. The Minister has said that he cannot ban fracked gas because it is an EU issue, and he cannot ban LNG because it is subject to an energy security review. I suggest to the Minister that he absolutely can do something about it. I ask the Minister to commit now to changing the Planning and Development Act to stop, for example, New Fortress Energy, which has already been in discussions with the planning authorities, from proceeding with its plans to build an LNG terminal at Shannon. A simple amendment to the Planning and Development Act would stop it. It does not have to rely on what the EU says, or what the energy security review says. Otherwise, what is the point of having a Green Party Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, if he does not do that?

Deputy Smith is right that one can do things. It is one of the reasons that in government I was very proud, as a member of the European Council, to put real pressure on the European Commission in recent weeks to change the EU taxonomy rules away from favouring investment in gas systems, recognising that we must keep that gas in the ground, and keep the oil and coal in the ground, if we are to meet our climate challenges. They were real and effective changes we were able make in government. I am glad that we have delivered on the programme for Government commitment and have agreement with our colleagues. We have just issued a statement committing that we would stop these LNG terminals, and saying that the Government is not supporting them.

Critically, as well as internationally and through those policy statements, the third way is in building up the alternative. We saw with the ESB and with Equinor the start of a concept of developing hydrogen facilities, instead of LNG, in the same location. That would give a secure economic future for the region and for the country in a low-climate way. It is to make that switch-----

I thank the Minister.

-----which we are actually doing. This is the change we can make, so we will not need LNG.

We will have alternatives. That is what we are doing in government.

I wish to ask the Minister about the broadband roll-out happening at the moment. I am delighted to say that I was part of getting it out. Surveys are being carried out currently. One bit of action is required from National Broadband Ireland, NBI, however, which is to prepare a medium-term programme to show people when they may expect to see the service coming to their area. Currently, NBI will give a person an answer to say that a household is at pre-survey stage, but it cannot give any indication as to when the service might be available. In fairness, people have told me that if they know they will not get a service for 12 or 18 months or two years, then at least they can plan around that. At the moment, it is very difficult for people to plan anything. Given the importance of having high-speed broadband in our homes, it would be very good if National Broadband Ireland could actually prepare a programme.

It is critical. A survey commissioned during the week looked at the issue of remote working, with 95% of people surveyed citing the view that they did not want to go back to a five-day week all of the time, especially if there is long-distance commuting involved. The national broadband plan will be a critical part of facilitating this alternative and better way of doing things. We must be straight up that the roll-out has been affected by Covid in the context of getting contractors in and getting work done. They are progressing, however. The last time I looked at the figures I believe more than 200,000 houses had been surveyed. It is going to take time, but we are working now to see if we can accelerate it, and there is a benefit that can accrue from that. I am hopeful. They will not truncate it down to anything like we would want it to be, but there is an urgency. It will not be the lengthy initial planned seven years. I hope we can truncate that somewhat.

Going back to earlier discussions on the roll-out, it is critical that the local authorities are fast in working with NBI with regard to giving the planning permissions or the necessary road permissions to allow us to put in some of the poling that we need.

Some of the key bottlenecks are at a very local level. Some councils are very good and others could learn from that practice.

I will suggest that we change the clock to two minutes and if the time is used up by the Minister or the Deputy it is used up.

It might be a better way to do it. I will talk to the Ceann Comhairle.

I am raising the issue of the bypass of Tipperary town again. People there need to be able to live and breathe. Given the traffic to and from Rosslare because of Brexit it will be vital. I know it is the desire of the Minister, and again today in the House he stated he prefers smaller bypasses of towns, and we are on the one page. I thank him for his engagement with the people of Tipperary town and the various groups. I beg him to insist the inner relief road on the footprint of the N24 Pallasgreen to Cahir road be done first or else put in place a simple bypass or relief road. The people there cannot live the way it is. They cannot breathe or cross the street. It is terrible. There are very good business people and community people in Tipperary town and they want to be able to do business and have a reasonable modicum of a decent lifestyle. Will the Minister please keep engaging with them to try to get the bypass for Tipperary town?

I commit to that. The various meetings I have had on this issue have been very useful. Tipperary town is one of many that needs the new town centre first strategy. We need to have various initiatives. As I said earlier, we need a range of bypasses in these fantastic 19th-century market towns. They have fantastic architecture, strong resources and schools, churches, retail and pubs all within walking distance. It is about restoring them and returning them to real vibrancy with young families living in the centre. This is at the centre of the town centre first strategy. It will require bypasses, investment in restoration, particularly in historic buildings, a change in regulations to make this easier and more economic and a range of innovative measures. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, is committed to this in the rural development strategy that we published recently.

Thank you, Minister.

My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, will have a key role. It has to be an all-of-government approach. The town centre first strategy will help Tipperary town and others to rise.

I want to raise the issue of drive-in cinemas, particularly Retro Drive-in Movies in Leopardstown in my constituency and the absolutely baffling news it has been closed down for supposedly being in breach of Covid regulations. This has come as a surprise to the businesses as it did to many of us, including me, who attended one of these drive in cinemas on Friday night. Previously under SI 219 of 2021 of the Health Act 1947, cinemas were listed as not permitted but drive-in cinemas were listed as an exception. It makes absolutely no sense that at a time when people can go to non-essential retail and the zoo, travel intercounty and visit people in gardens they cannot drive and watch a movie from the safety of their car. Will the Minister liaise with his Government colleagues to have this exception put back into the regulations for drive-in cinemas?

I was not aware of this issue and I am glad Deputy Richmond has raised it. On first hearing of it, it is hard to see how a drive-in movie could be a public health risk for the spread of the coronavirus. I will speak to my colleagues in government, including officials dealing with the management of the public health crisis, to see whether anything can be done specifically in this instance. It will be part of a wider approach. My colleague, the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, is engaged on this and we will have further meetings next week at which we will plan the further reopening of the country. Within this, she is very keen that cinemas and theatres will start to reopen in a safe way. It seems more immediately that drive-in movies would be as safe as we could get. I will share the concerns of the Deputy with the officials to see whether we can do anything.

I want to raise the issue of educational disadvantage and inclusion. This week, I met the parents of children with dyslexia. They set up a parent advocacy group and within a short period of time more than 60 people had been in contact with them. I have also been in touch with parents who had expected a dyslexia unit to be established in the school on Roselawn Road only for it to be pulled at the last minute. Many parents acknowledge and accept, as do teachers and educational psychologists, that mainstream is not the best for every child and that some will need extra and intensive support in a special setting. Will the Minister engage with the Minister for Education to ensure a special unit or school is established in Dublin 15 to ensure that in the first instance every child will get a chance to have the best education we can provide and to ensure students are not forced to travel up to two to three hours every day to a special school in Swords, Tallaght or the north inner city?

I was very glad to take part in a recent cabinet subcommittee meeting that exclusively looked at this issue for three hours. It was hugely informative. Perhaps I may share some personal reflections on this. There was some media comment in recent years on the New Brunswick model, whereby everyone can be in a mainstream school. The view of many parents' advocacy organisations here, and to my mind rightly, is that we will still need a variety of choice. For each child there is a different need. Included in this for a variety of conditions we will need special schools that cater for special needs, or special abilities as one of my colleagues rightly calls them. It is also noticeable when we look at the research statistics that there has been an amazing increase in the amount spent on special needs education in our country, be it on special needs assistants, special teachers or special schools.

Go raibh maith agat.

However, there are gaps and if Dublin 15 is one of these then absolutely we need to close them.

It is very important that we protect every child in the way we manage this.

I want to raise the employment of behavioural analysts who, as with other key members of staff in education, are being taken over by the Department of Education and brought into the public sector system. The Labour Court has been clear that the Department has to engage but the Department is of another view. I have received responses to parliamentary questions to this effect. Meanwhile, Saplings Special School in Kill in my constituency of Kildare North is extremely worried that it will lose its behavioural analyst, who has been a central figure in the lives of the children for more than a decade. Another 12 analysts are in this employment limbo. I am sure the Minister agrees this is a life-saving service for the children. These children have special needs and autism. The behavioural analysts have a right to secure employment.

Thank you, Deputy.

I hope the Minister agrees we have to do something about this urgently. Will the Minister tell me what he can do about this? The Minister, Deputy Foley, is not engaging properly.

The Deputy's question follows the preceding one coincidentally but very much on the same issue. I do not have the details of the school but I presume Saplings is a special autism school that was established approximately 12 years ago. I have knowledge of them and they do hugely beneficial work. As I have just been saying, we need specialist schools in some instances. It is not always a mainstream unit that is required. If the Deputy provides me with the details I will certainly commit to forwarding them to the Minister, Deputy Foley, to see what might be possible. I cannot commit on a specific case but I am very familiar with the good work of the schools.

Last June, the Tánaiste opened the first e-mental health hub in Castlerea, County Roscommon in my constituency. It is a €2.6 million development to provide mental health services to children and young people through CAMHS Connect and, crucially, a day hospital for psychiatry of later life patients. The service was hailed at the time as having the potential to improve radically mental health services for patients. These were the Tánaiste's words. Perhaps if the HSE funded and staffed the service this would be the case. Last year, funding was provided for four staff members and the remaining vacancies were to be funded this year. However, this year no funding has been awarded for the four staff or the remaining vacancies. No funding has been provided for the psychiatry of later life service. This is particularly disgraceful given that the Rosalie unit, a care home for older people with dementia, was closed and replaced with a service that is not being funded. Far too often, the people of Roscommon are left behind when it comes to healthcare.

Thank you, Deputy.

I want the funding released and the full services delivered.

Will the Minister commit to it?

I do not have an understanding of the specifics of the case. If the Deputy provides me with the details I will happily forward them to the Minister. To broaden it out, in one sense, to the cyberattack crisis we are facing, we will have to get the balancing act right because we need a range of new e-health solutions to deliver Sláintecare and to deliver new services and improve existing services. We cannot shy away from the use of technology in the provision of a range of health services, including mental health services.

In managing a response to the immediate crisis, we will have to build back better, to use words similar to those used during the Covid crisis, so that we have secure networks. A particular characteristic of health networks is that they are widespread with so many entry points. We must still provide those services. We must now make them very secure at the same time.

In the context of build back better, yesterday I published a draft framework for a circular economy as a rapporteur which, I believe, should be a central spine on our climate action planning. I do not need to remind the Minister that Ireland has 22% more waste than the rest of the EU. Our food waste would be the equivalent in climate impact to 1 million vehicles being taken off the road if we could eliminate it. Two thirds of our plastic is not recyclable. I ask the Minister if he agrees with me that rethinking our supply chains from the start or initial design to the end of life is crucial to delivering on our ambitions. Does the Minister believe we should now set bold objectives, such as halving food waste within five years rather than ten years and halving residual black-bin waste by 2030? Does he agree that we should develop sectoral roadmaps so that these can be realised effectively?

I absolutely agree. I look forward to reading that report.

I agree we must be more ambitious for a variety of reasons. First, we are close to the limit in terms of what we can manage under the existing system - landfill, incineration or other mechanisms. We must dramatically reduce the amount of waste and increase the amount of recycling.

When Mr. John Kerry spoke at the Dublin Climate Dialogues yesterday, he reiterated a point we are hearing increasingly, which is that we are not doing enough on climate globally. We are not meeting the scale of the challenge and we must radically increase ambition. That will come from the climate Bill but it will also come from the waste action plan. This job is a job where one takes a baton from a predecessor and then one manages it and passes it on. I was fortunate in this instance to take the baton from Deputy Bruton with the waste action plan in train. It was a good approach. It worked with the multiplicity of stakeholders. Industry has bought in. They will have a huge responsibility. We have that plan. We have the 200 actions in it. It is a matter of delivering those. I agree with the Deputy. I will look to put further ambition in if the Deputy's report indicates where that is possible.

The programme for Government commits to supports for early childcare schemes but the reality is that the current schemes have failed to provide parents with affordable, accessible and meaningful childcare. Like housing, it would seem that the Government does not understand what affordable means for real people. We have the second lowest rate of expenditure on childcare in the OECD, for starters. The current scheme has glaring problems. It allows providers to opt out of the national childcare subsidy scheme. It has also allowed for massive increases since Covid and it has left many parents footing the total bill. In my constituency, in places such as Clancy Barracks, the local provision of childcare has just become impossible for providers such as Safari Childcare. The massive hike since Covid and the ability to opt out are causing real problems. When will we finally have a national uniform affordable public childcare system in this country?

During the Covid crisis, there have been difficulties in the childcare sector. No doubt there are specific problems in various centres in getting and retaining staff, etc., but the characteristic that seems to have stood out in the past year is how our childcare sector, even in times of real difficulty when transmission rates were high, was still there providing a service. That was critically important to the families involved, to the parents but also to the State in that it allowed us to maintain some sort of service that we need, not only for critical workers but for all parents. My colleague, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, has a central role in this. There is no shortage of commitment for us to review, improve and enhance our childcare services across a range of different models. The circumstances of every child and every family are different. We must provide for that multiplicity. I will pass the Deputy's comments to Deputy O'Gorman, who is committed to providing the necessary services.

Over 200,000 people are now waiting for a driving theory test or a driving test. This is having a huge impact on people, particularly young people. Driving tests are happening in a limited way. Theory tests are completely closed, more or less, since October. This is despite the fact that the Road Safety Authority, RSA, is of the firm opinion that the theory test can be conducted safely during Covid restrictions. Mr. Declan Naughton from the RSA said as much on radio recently. Mr. Naughton stated that if there is a view that the theory test is unsafe for any reason, those in the RSA would love to get to show that with robust anti-Covid measures it is safe. He pointed to the fact that 42,000 driving tests had been conducted since January in even more confined conditions and with no Covid cases. Relating to theory tests, Mr. Naughton stated that the RSA would love the opportunity to demonstrate to public health personnel that it is safe to open. I ask the Minister with responsibility for this area whether a risk assessment has taken place. If not, why not? Most importantly, when will the theory tests reopen?

I expect the online theory tests to open within the coming weeks, if not days. It is imminent, and will be followed shortly afterwards by the reintroduction of theory tests in person. They are critical. Younger people have suffered particularly during this coronavirus crisis. We need many younger people to be engaged on farms across the country this summer and they might be able to do so if they have their learner's licence. Also, many younger people are looking to get back to work and part of that for many of them will involve the ability to drive. Getting the theory test is the first and most immediate hurdle.

The volume, as I said initially, online will not be limited but it will not clear the full backlog. It will be the combination of that and the return of the in-presence theory test, and the return to what we did last summer when we dramatically increased the volume of people who work in the area, that will ensure the average of 15,000 theory tests a month will be scaled up to approximately 25,000. That is what we intend to do.

In the context of the need for climate change targets to coexist with the agrifood sector and the need to monitor progress in respect of both, I ask the Minister to outline the extent to which he monitors the progress in those areas. For example, moss peat, which is an integral part of the horticultural sector in this country, is being discontinued and, I am told, replaced by an import. The question that arises is the degree to which the import, given that there is a carbon footprint and miles attached, achieves the benefits sought and whether any further measures are needed.

It is critical that we protect and provide what is needed for our horticultural industry. Part of the future for Irish agriculture is more diversity and a significantly enhanced and expanded horticultural industry. In that regard, they need growing medium compost. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, has set up a working group to look at future alternatives to that. The reality is the future will not be in the mass industrial extraction of peat from our bogs. Those bogs need to be protected as a store of carbon and as a source of biodiversity. There will be a variety of alternatives, such as the short-term use of very small bogs here and also the use of imported peat. In reality, we have been probably one of the biggest exporters of significant volumes until recently when legal challenges stopped the extraction and exportation. I believe that will be one of the solutions that we need to protect our horticultural industry in the short run. The medium-term solution has to be the development of alternative compost mediums.

We have run out of time but I seek the Minister's co-operation. There are three speakers left. I suggest they have 30 seconds if they want. Otherwise we will not get to them at all. If I allow each speaker 30 seconds, the Minister can reply to all three. Is that agreed? Agreed. The first is Deputy Andrews.

The outdoor dining enhancement scheme will help and support businesses in the hospitality sector to get back to work. I welcome this scheme. Gyms and health centres are so important to us all and have struggled badly because, like the hospitality sector, most of their business is done indoors.

I was in the Dartry Health Club with Mr. Barry Walsh recently. It wants to set up outdoor classes and exercise areas, but it is very expensive. Will the Government extend the outdoor enhancement scheme to gyms and health centres?

After a series of delays and blunders, the new Drogheda Educate Together secondary school on the Mill Road is finally being given the go ahead. I have been contacted by the parents' building committee which is seriously concerned that the school is still only at the pre-planning stage and may not be completed until 2024 or later. This is despite the fact that the Minister, Deputy Foley, announced that the school would be delivered under the Department's design and build programme which usually takes 18 months or less. Will the Minister, Deputy Ryan, ask the Minister for Education to liaise with the parents' building committee to ensure the school is delivered on track and completed on time and that no further delays ensue?

I raise the issue of the closure of the Aer Lingus cabin crew base in Shannon which affects 81 workers. The Minister met the Aer Lingus CEO, Ms Lynne Embleton, yesterday. Can he give us an update on that discussion? We want the decision to be reversed. Can he commit to ongoing discussions with Aer Lingus to ensure connectivity out of Shannon and that the base remains? The 81 cabin crew affected are not being paid by the airline. They are in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment. There is no cost to the State. The airline should not have made that decision.

On the extension of the outdoor dining supports to the health sector, I will ask the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, what is possible.

I congratulate the Drogheda Educate Together school and am glad to hear the construction of the school building has been agreed. I have heard the concerns expressed about the timelines and will share that information with the Minister, Deputy Foley.

I met the Aer Lingus CEO yesterday, as well as representatives from Shannon Airport. Can I give some reassurance to people in the Shannon region? They need it at what is dark and difficult time, in particular for the workers in the airport and Aer Lingus. We will get services back in Shannon. I expect Aer Lingus will have regular services from Shannon in the autumn. We will look to protect the critical and vital Heathrow slots. The return of North American services will be key to the recovery of the region and country. While it is very difficult, our thoughts and efforts are for the workers involved. There will be a strong future for Shannon, that is one thing I am sure of.

Sitting suspended at 1.13 p.m. and resumed at 1.55 p.m.