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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Vol. 1007 No. 5

An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

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

Sinn Féin wrote to the Business Committee last week regarding the Government's submission to the EU recovery fund. Last week, it was announced that the Government was to make its submission to that fund this week, without it having been discussed in the Dáil at any point or at committee level. This involves €853 million, which is significant. We wrote to the Business Committee about this and the Government has agreed to have it discussed next week. Is the Government, therefore, postponing its submission to next week so it can be brought to the Dáil, Members can scrutinise it and proposals can be made? That is a key part of the democratic process.

We have to assess a number of different key questions or big projects. First, we must prioritise housing in a new housing for all strategy, which we must deliver in the coming months. Second, there is a review of the national development plan, which must be done in tandem with the climate action plan. All this is within a very tight timeframe. I believe we should aim to try to get that done before the end of this term. The recovery and resilience facility fits within that, but it is just one of the elements we will have to discuss, debate and sign off on. I welcome that we will have that debate next week. It will show, first, that we are going to make a very green investment, as is requested by the European Commission. It will help address some of the housing crisis issues by providing transport solutions that will be critical for it.

We cannot go into the detail of it now.

I look forward to that debate, but it is only one measure in a series of very important initiatives in the next few months.

The Minister is well aware that tomorrow, the biggest crisis in the fishing industry will lead to protests throughout the country. It will probably be the biggest fishing industry protest for decades. We have had a disastrous term with regard to fishing and Brexit, in which the Minister and the Government have been caught asleep at the wheel.

What has this got to do with today's Order of Business?

Now we have been led into a catch weighing crisis that is out of all proportion, as the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA, and the Minister now accept. They knew about it in December and did not acknowledge it to the industry until April. I am asking for a debate on this issue today. It is a serious issue. The fishermen of Ireland will protest tomorrow in massive numbers. This can be averted. There should at least be a discussion in the House, or show them there is a future in the fishing industry of this country.

I advise that the Deputy's representative on the Business Committee raise it in that committee, where it can be discussed and decided on for future Dáil business.

Is the proposal for today's business agreed to? Agreed. Is the proposal for Wednesday's business agreed to?

In circumstances in which all four legislative measures that make up the Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2021 could have been extended individually, why has the Government lumped all these legislative measures into the issue to be debated in a new Bill commencing in the Dáil tomorrow? The Bill was passed by the Seanad yesterday. The Government is trying to create confusion, as far as I can see. A simple vote by Members of the House on whether to extend the restrictions to November or perhaps February is all that is required. The Government has now conflated the issue into four legislative measures. This is a type of four-card trick it is playing with the public. I want a debate on this.

I want to know why this issue could not be dealt with in one piece of legislation.

We will let the Minister answer.

I understand there will be time for a debate on that subject. My understanding is that the vast majority of the House is supportive of the approach. If there is anyone with a contrary view, they will have every opportunity to articulate it tomorrow.

Is Wednesday's business agreed to? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with Thursday's business agreed to? Agreed.

On Saturday, thousands of people joined demonstrations in Donegal and Mayo. They called on the Government to deliver a 100% redress scheme for those whose homes have been, and are being, destroyed by defective blocks containing mica and pyrite. This issue, as the Minister knows, also affects homeowners in County Clare. Under the existing scheme, some homeowners are having to pay the cost of up to 50% of the remediation, sometimes hundreds of thousands of euro. This is money the families concerned simply do not have. They were not responsible for the defects in the first place. These families should have been treated exactly the same as the families who availed of the original pyrite redress scheme, who got 100% of the cost of remediation. Will the Minister commit to reviewing the scheme urgently? Will the Government provide equality for the people in Mayo, Donegal and Clare by providing 100% redress for defects they did not create?

A number of Deputies have mentioned this issue to me and I am well aware of it. It is a real concern. That is why the Government and the Department are looking at how the scheme is being applied in practice. There have been different characteristics in different parts of the country. I will certainly pass on the Deputy's desire for 100% coverage for the cost of remediation to the relevant Minister.

I raise the issue of the surface of the M7 motorway. Over the weekend, there were again a number of accidents on the M7 between Nenagh and Birdhill. I have raised this issue multiple times with the Minister. I have, in fact, raised the issue with multiple Minsters for Transport. I have raised the matter in this Chamber with a Minister for State with responsibility for transport and I have raised it with Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII. There is something wrong around Annaholty, where sinkholes were discovered that meant the construction of the road was delayed for a number of years. There are continuously crashes on the road. TII has replied to me with a long statement saying it is putting up speed checks on the road, in conjunction with An Garda Síochána. That is not what is needed. Something is wrong with the surface any time there are hailstones or rain of a significant level. People around the area choose to use the old road because there are so many crashes and collisions on the M7. I am asking the Minister to use his power to ensure that TII does a study of the road and its surface.

I agree that we need to prioritise safety when investing in our road network and, in many instances, that applies to issues such as the surface of the roads. I will sign off on a climate adaptation fund later this week which concerns the protection of road surfaces that have been affected by heavy rainfall and hail events, the sorts of things mentioned by the Deputy. Those are becoming significant issues as floodwaters wash away surfaces and create dangerous driving conditions. I will commit to that. I will ask TII to look specifically at the M7 close to Birdhill in that regard.

There is a huge gap between what the Minister and the Government are saying about housing and what they are doing. The Minister earlier referenced the proposed sell-off of public land in north Dublin, enough to build 1,200 affordable and social homes, to a private developer. If that sale goes ahead, more than 240 apartments will be built on those lands and sold off to investment funds. None of them will be available for people to buy. Why is it, under this Government, that 100% of new-build apartments are being sold to investment funds and none is available for individual purchase to allow people to make that choice? Will the Green Party, while in government, push for choice and availability so that apartments will be available for people to buy as a part of sustainable development and not just for investment funds?

We will always push for that, particularly at the level of local government, which is where this must apply. My understanding is that, in 2018, our councillors pushed for 70% of the overall development to be available for cost rental. The Social Democrats had a motion at the time calling for a significant number to be available for cost rental but did not set a particular percentage. The Green Party will always try to get the highest proportion, particularly of new public housing solutions such as the development the Deputy mentioned. I understand the county council has to decide on the issue this evening. There is still the possibility that the council will be able to set the terms to protect affordable apartments from being sold en bloc. I hope that is successful and that the council comes to an agreement this evening.

Earlier the Minister spoke about the third anniversary of the vote to repeal the eighth amendment and the questions around the national maternity hospital. He said he has no evidence that there is any difference between his position and that of the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, other than what we and all in government want. According to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, there is no disagreement on a full guarantee on an absolutely independent national maternity hospital.

We do not have evidence there is not a divide between them. A cross-party group has written to the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, asking him to meet us and give us clarity on the issue. He has not answered. I have written personally to him and he has not answered. I have tabled parliamentary questions that have not been answered. Will the Minister please now ask Stephen Donnelly to give the women of this country an answer?

By the way, I think it is worth noting that if men could get pregnant - look around you - we would have had clarity long ago. We are not getting clarity because we are being kicked around again on the question of full access to safe, legal abortion. Will the Minster please get the Minister for Health to give us clarity on the issue?

I expect Government will be able to give legal clarity very shortly. I will certainly pass that on to the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, and look forward to presenting the case.

News that Aer Lingus will permanently close its cabin crew base at Shannon Airport has come as a significant blow to the airport, the midwest region, including County Tipperary, and in particular, the 80 Shannon-based staff who now face redundancy and grave uncertainty.

Over the past week, I have heard very genuine personal stories reflecting great hardship and huge anxiety for the future. This announcement is a grave disservice to a loyal, dedicated staff. The staff of Aer Lingus are squeezed in the middle between Government-imposed restrictions and Aer Lingus strategy and policy.

Protecting the future of its core workforce must be a Government priority in discussions with Aer Lingus. Financial support for the company must be conditional on the retention of its base at Shannon. State aid must be directed in such a way to support and assist the workforce. The move by Aer Lingus to close its base at Shannon contradicts Government policy to encourage actively balanced regional development. Dublin Airport will continue to grow and flourish. Shannon and Cork airports are doomed to struggle for survival. Does the Minister have any proposals to assist Aer Lingus and the Shannon base?

I was glad to be able to talk to some of the pilots who were protesting outside the convention centre today and give them a similar commitment I will give to the Deputy, which is that we will do everything to see the aviation sector return and with it all the range of different benefits that accrue to our country.

To be clear, Shannon Airport will see flights returning. I expect Aer Lingus to be back flying from Shannon Airport in September and flights from the states equally returning. In a meeting I had with the airline and the airport last week, there was no indication or sense that this will not be the eventuality. Yes, must make it happen first and foremost. It is about managing Covid-19.

We will have statements on travel shortly in the Dáil. A Government decision is expected later this week, after which the roadmap will be set out. I hope that will be the key element in getting those jobs back.

I believe in the old adage, Tús maith leath na hoibre. What is going on with the Road safety Authority, RSA? It is under the aegis of the Department of the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton. Some 100,000 people are waiting for driving theory tests and cannot get started on the road.

The Minister of State came into the Chamber to reply to a Topical Issue matter, which the Ceann Comhairle kindly allowed us some weeks ago, and told us that driver theory tests were not an essential service. It is a most essential service that allows people to go to work and to get on the road for silage and contracting. It will be an issue across industry if we cannot get these people tested.

People are getting appointments now for August that were applied for last December. The RSA seems to be busy now cancelling the tests rather than making any effort to deal with the issue. It is a screen test that can surely be done online. It beggars belief. The ineptitude of the Department of Transport and the RSA is such that they cannot allow theory tests to go ahead on-screen. It has to be addressed because it will cripple our industry and economy.

Every different section of our society has suffered in this Covid-19 pandemic and we must think of each of them. I would argue, however, that our younger people are the ones to whom we must be particularly attentive. They will be the last to be vaccinated.

Give them the other test.

They have suffered most in terms in their education and work. They have lost most jobs, and within that, they are the ones who particularly suffer from the lack of a theory test or the delay in getting a driving test. We will put all the resources of the State into reducing that waiting list, including the use of online theory tests.

It is not happening.

It will happen, and not just that.

Christmas is coming.

As we return in June and measures are relieved, critical within that, and almost my first priority, would be allowing people to come back to have theory tests.

Thank you very much, Minister.

For younger people, in particular, in terms of accessing work, that is going to be critical and it will be our top priority.

Seaview Respite House in Mountcharles in County Donegal is slowly reopening but the disabled people who get respite there, and their families, are in desperate need of a proper service. Will the Government put pressure on the rehabilitation services and the HSE to ensure the service reopens fully, on a seven-day-week basis, so that families can get this much-needed respite?

Such respite services are a huge relief to families. I will ask the relevant Minister to consider the case for the restoration of seven-day services in the Seaview centre in Mountcharles, as the Deputy requests.

The Minister has campaigned extensively for MetroLink and for improved sustainable transport for more than 25 years. As he knows, I have been campaigning for metro south west and have passed transport motions at regional assembly level, including on the opening of the Navan rail corridor and, in particular, the metro extensions to Knocklyon and UCD. The south-west Dublin area is chronically congested and becoming densely populated with strategic housing development, SHD, schemes, among other planning applications. Dublin South-West is in need of improved public transport to give people better access to work, education and health. The impact of sustainable transport extends beyond the environmental benefits to include improvements to quality of life, productivity and opportunity. The programme for Government commits to prioritising plans for the delivery of MetroLink, Luas and other light rail expansion. When is it expected that the planning application for the airport-city metro will be lodged and when can we expect works to start?

The Deputy and I share a belief in public transport and the potential role of the metro in extending not just to Ranelagh but further south. Whether it goes south west to Terenure, Knocklyon, Firhouse and on to Tallaght, up the green line, which I think is less likely given the disruption it would cause, or runs to the south east, to Donnybrook, UCD, Stillorgan and Sandyford, is going to be the subject of a detailed review by the NTA, looking at all options. We have to look at the options with real seriousness because, as the Deputy says, that south-west corridor in particular, as I know from working there over the years, is probably the least well serviced in terms of bus corridors, the most difficult and there is a large amount of planning and development happening there at this time. We need public transport solutions for every quadrant of the city and that quadrant is particularly ill served. However, it has to be done on a good transport basis. We have to look and see what the optimal engineering solution is and that will take time. Unfortunately, as we discussed earlier, transport projects, particularly big projects like the metro, which has been more than 23 years in planning-----

We cannot go into the detail.

I expect it to go for planning approval this year but, even then, it will take many years to build, such is the project. By thinking long term, we can get the overall planning of the area right, including Terenure and Rathfarnham.

I raise the backlog in the driver theory test and driving tests, which must be dealt with as a matter of urgency. I appreciate the Government has decided to take a very safe, gradual and phased approach to reopening some driver test centres through the RSA, which commenced on 10 May. That is welcome. However, learner drivers across counties Cavan and Monaghan are becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress. As things stand, only essential workers can sit the driving test and the same applies to people wanting to take driving lessons. Many constituents of mine, and their parents, have contacted my office about this. Parents ultimately take the brunt of this in constituencies like Cavan-Monaghan where we do not have the same public transport infrastructure as elsewhere. If young people do not have that mode of transport to get to work, college or wherever they need to go, parents have to take them. I ask that particular resources be put into the Cavan and Monaghan area to address this.

Most of the emails I get are probably on this issue. The Ceann Comhairle would be aware of this from his contact with the public. It is a huge issue, as I said earlier. The solution will be an early return to tests, but we have to take that in the context of public health advice. The job of public health, rightly, has been to minimise all social contact, particularly anything indoors. Being able to do the theory test, particularly online, will help to overcome that problem.

I expect it to be one of the services that will return soonest in order to allow us to address the backlog, not just by means of the traditional 15,000 theory tests a month but by a multiple thereof. Doing that number of tests will facilitate young people in getting back to work.

It will be the same with driving tests. That will take slightly longer because, obviously, one cannot do a driving test online. By definition, a driving test takes place on the road. In the previous opening-up period, we appointed an additional 40 testers. We will double that again, as needs be, in order to get the queues down.

I raise the issue of the derelict site at the former Corrib Great Southern Hotel. In 2010, planning permission was granted to demolish the current structures. In 2015, the site was added to the derelict site register. Years later, however, we are still stuck with this eyesore in one of the most prominent locations in the east of the city. At a time when people cannot afford homes, we cannot afford to have sites like this lying idle in Galway. I am asking if the Government will commit to reviewing the vacant site levy to make it a more effective tool to stop the hoarding of derelict sites in the middle of a housing crisis.

This goes back to the discussion I had with Deputy Ó Broin earlier. We need a multifaceted response and we must use the stick as well as the carrot. This must apply particularly to the use of underdeveloped lands and sites and further action must be taken. The vacant sites levy has not delivered the scale of urgency or action one would have wanted so yes, it must be part of a new, much more ambitious, much more progressive housing strategy.

The programme for Government contains a commitment in respect of taking urgent action against domestic violence and, in particular, carrying out an audit in respect of the segmented services across all Departments for victims of sexual, gender and domestic violence. We were promised that at the end of March but March has come and gone. We were promised it at the end of April but April has come and gone. Can the Minister please tell me when the draft report that has been with the Department for some time will be published and action taken on it?

I commit to trying to find exactly when it will be published and will have that information transmitted to the Deputy. She is right about the whole issue of domestic and sexual violence not receiving the right level of attention. On a separate but related issue, following the recent cyberattack, the Deputy may have read in the newspapers that the information from some of the assault units was not digitally recorded but was still on paper. On the one hand, that protected us in this instance but, on the other, it showed a lack of urgency or lack of attention and resources regarding domestic violence. I will ask and try to get the information to the Deputy about when the report will be forthcoming.

I want to raise the mystery of vanishing crèches in housing estates in north County Kildare. Developers get planning permission, advertise and sell on the basis of estates having crèches but when the families move in, there are no crèches. Those involved have been abandoned by developers, usually in favour of more homes or, perhaps, the developers state they are going to wait until all the phases are sold. Last year, north County Kildare was down hundreds of crèche places promised by Ardstone Homes and Cairn Homes. Those places were just not delivered. The same thing is happening with the Castle Farm development at Jigginstown, Naas, where many people bought homes when their children were newborn on the basis that there would be a crèche for them. Those children are now three years of age and are nearly ready for school. When will the Government legislate to ensure that these crèches are built? I suggest that crèches be built first in the future in order that people will not have to wait for all the different phases to be finished.

I share the concern about the resources that are needed. We keep looking at the housing crisis, which, obviously, must be our primary focus, but we have housing without public transport, local shops and local schools. There is a real issue in County Kildare. In that context, I recall a Dáil debate on the number of school places in County Kildare. It is not just crèches, it is across the whole spectrum. There is a real problem. Half of the new houses being built at the moment are in the counties surrounding Dublin, namely, Kildare, Meath, Wicklow and Louth. Half of the budget is being spent there. We have unbalanced regional development, a continuation of the sprawl model. We need housing in County Kildare but it cannot be housing without the other services to which I refer. Building in counties Kildare or Meath will not solve the housing crisis. There is a need to put in place the right quality of housing, which means services must also be provided.

I was hoping my fellow Corkonian the Taoiseach might be present to answer my question. Given his remit in the area of transport, I am glad the Minister is here.

A report was published yesterday from the All-Island Research Observatory in Maynooth demonstrating that Cork's road infrastructure is massively underfunded. It is not just a question of underfunding of roads, as it also involves the town and village renewal scheme and the CLÁR and LEADER programmes, funding for which is substantially below national averages. Engineers Ireland stipulates that roads should be strengthened every 20 years but in Cork that is not likely to happen for 52 years, given the backlog and our problems.

The national roads office in Cork estimates almost €750 million is required to bring local roads up to standard. Given that the programme for Government commits to ensuring sufficient investment in the local and regional road network to maintain roads to a proper standard, deal with road and safety challenges and improve regional accessibility, what will the Government do to address the issues in Cork arising from the report I mention?

Is the Minister's chequebook out for Cork?

The key argument represented to my engineers and the Department is that investing in ongoing maintenance saves in the long run. If we let a road go and it goes below a certain standard, getting it back to standard is very expensive and difficult. There is a real case for what is called steady state investment, or investing in the steady state characteristic of our roads. Cork is the largest county by area and, I am sure, has the greatest length of road by miles, and it will be considered, like every county, in making our roads safe. That is what the investment provides for.

I met members of the north Mayo pyrite group at their socially distant demonstration last Saturday in Ballina and their story paints a grim picture, through no fault of their own. Pyrite has caused considerable distress, both financially and mentally, and this is compounded by the response of the quarries that supplied the blocks. Their demand is simple; there should be parity of treatment to terms available under the pyrite remediation scheme. In contrast, the defective concrete block grant scheme requires a financial overlay at a cost of 10%, along with payment for alternative accommodation and storage while continuing mortgage repayments. This is desperately unfair.

I acknowledge the Minister with responsibility for the matter, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has undertaken to meet affected groups and Oireachtas Members in Mayo this week but we need a cross-departmental approach, particularly between the Departments of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform.

I am sure the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, will benefit from meeting the various Deputies who have expressed an interest in this matter. We have schemes in place and the question is whether they are working effectively or what changes may be required. For anyone involved, it is clearly the worst disaster that can befall a person because the house is fundamentally damaged. We must help those people and I am absolutely certain the Minister will apprise the Deputies of how he intends to do it.

I raise the same matter that was mentioned some moments ago. The Minister must be aware of the comprehensive report published yesterday by the All-Island Research Observatory at Maynooth University, which states that Cork County Council had the lowest levels of funding over the past number of decades, including the lowest CLÁR funding per capita despite having the highest population eligible for the programme. It had the fourth lowest level of LEADER funding, despite our population, and the lowest rate of funding for rural regeneration and town and village renewal schemes, local improvement schemes and greenway funding. The report indicates it will take 52 years to bring Cork County Council roads up to standard. I can certainly tell the Minister that our roads are not safe, as he said they were a while ago. Come down to west Cork and I will drive him around. I will shock him with the potholes and the scandalous level of repairs to the roads arising from a lack of funding.

This report vindicates my position since 2016 fighting for funding for west Cork. Every Taoiseach and Minister since has refused to give proper funding to Cork.

Thank you, Deputy.

I am calling for a task force to deal with the matter. Will the Minister support me in requesting the establishment of a task force for Cork county and west Cork?

I know those roads well and they are absolutely a real priority, as they are in every other county. If the evidence in the report is that Cork is left behind, I would be surprised, to be honest. The engineers and managers in Cork County Council are not slow or shy about asking for funding or in their ability to spend.

Their public representatives are not too shy either.

There is good work done at a local government level in Cork. I will look at the report and if there is any disparity, or if west Cork in particular is falling behind, I will be happy to try to address that.

I raise with the Minister the driving test backlog. There are 12-month waiting lists for driving tests. I understand there was a safety issue with physical driving tests at the height of Covid but as we emerge from the pandemic, the Minister needs to provide staff to catch up. Approximately 100,000 people are waiting for driving tests. The Road Safety Authority sought 80 extra driver testers and I understand 40 were provided. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that. This is holding people up. The suspension of the theory test does not make sense. The test could be done in cubicles or online. It should never have been suspended during Covid-19.

I also raise the issue of testing for motorcyclists, one of whom told me he cannot do the driving test because of Covid. I failed to figure out how someone could catch Covid on a motorbike. Driving tests for motorcyclists seem to be suspended also. Perhaps the Minister will clarify this. It is causing major problems in counties Laois and Offaly for those who need a licence and car for work, especially those who live in rural areas of the midlands who do not have public transport.

The Deputy has made his point.

When will we see action on these very difficult issues?

Deputy Thomas Gould also has a question, which he can put before we conclude.

Gaelscoil Pheig Sayers was set up 35 years ago, in 1986. Since then, it has moved from Na Piarsaigh football and hurling club to the North Monastery and later to the North Point Business Park. The Department of Education is in negotiations with the Farranferris Foundation. Gaelscoil Pheig Sayers needs a new purpose-built school. Will the Minister commit to this? Twelve years ago, the school had 89 students. It now has more than 300. There is great enthusiasm for educating young children in Cork North-Central through Irish. It is time we delivered a school because 35 years is too long to wait for the Gaelscoil.

Will the Minister address those two questions?

I will pass on to the Minister for Education the case the Deputy made regarding the needs of the Gaelscoil in question.

On Deputy Stanley's question, motorcycle testing is returning. As the Deputy said, the physical reality for doing the test is now very different. We provided for an additional 42 driving testers. The direction I gave was that if further testers were needed, an additional 40 would be provided. The RSA must manage its resources to optimise that allocation. It indicated that the additional testers provided should suffice for the time being. If there is anything we can do to reduce the driver test backlog when testing is allowed to return, we will do it. Similarly, I expect the driver theory tests to recommence first and quickly, not only online but also in person as soon as the public health authorities say the centres can be reopened.

I thank the Deputies and the Minister for their co-operation. That concludes questions on promised legislation.