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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Vol. 1007 No. 6

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Before we begin, I ask Deputies for co-operation. If I get their co-operation, I will not have to keep interrupting and they will not lose time.

I want to ask the Taoiseach about the CervicalCheck tribunal. As of this month, a total of 250 claims have been made against the State by women who were damaged and injured by the CervicalCheck scandal. Court proceedings have been issued in respect of 190 claims and 31 claims have been concluded. As of 12 May, there were 160 active court cases involving women affected by this scandal and, of those, only three have been transferred to the tribunal. The 221+ support group is very critical of the tribunal, as the Taoiseach knows. It has no confidence in it and says that it has struck an iceberg. Equally, the women affected have no confidence in the Minister for Health or the process over which he presides. Given the seriousness of all this, the ordeal the women and their families have been through and the significant public concern about this matter, what is the Taoiseach going to do? This tribunal is not working. How will he intervene?

As the Deputy knows, the establishment of the tribunal was based on the recommendation of Mr. Justice Charles Meenan and was provided for in legislation enacted in the previous Dáil, which had the support of all political parties in the House. It is the Government's view that the tribunal offers a number of advantages when compared with taking High Court proceedings, as outlined by Mr. Justice Meenan in his report. The tribunal is up and running. The Deputy is correct that three claims have been received by it and these have been advanced promptly. It is our view that the tribunal offers a far more effective and quicker approach to getting claims resolved. The tribunal is an alternative venue for the exclusive purpose of dealing with the claims promptly. Of course, people have an entitlement to use the courts but we believe the tribunal offers a very good forum.

There is a commitment in the programme for Government to establish a citizens' assembly on the issue of drugs. There is growing momentum for a radical rethink of our entire drug strategy. We have the third highest overdose rate in Europe and there is a belief that this supposed war on drugs is killing marginalised people. There is a view that we need to decriminalise the drug user - not decriminalise drugs or legalise them, but take the drug user out of the criminal justice system. The Taoiseach will have seen the recent report about an individual who was in court in Cork charged with possession of cannabis worth €4. The Government has made a commitment to the establishment of a citizens' assembly on drugs. When is it intended to establish the latter?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. He has been a consistent advocate in respect of this matter. We have committed to establishing citizens' assemblies on a number of issues, including the Dublin Lord Mayor, biodiversity and drugs. I will come back to the Deputy on their sequencing and prioritisation. The Government will give further consideration to the matter as well. I take the points the Deputy has made and I will come back to him.

On the third anniversary of the repeal of the eighth amendment, when the Irish people voted overwhelmingly to trust women to make decisions about our own healthcare, there are still a number of pressing issues with the current legislation. Families who need a termination for medical reasons are still being forced to travel to the UK. There is still a criminal penalty around abortion and there is still a three-day mandatory waiting period that has no medical basis. The review of the legislation is coming up soon. However, there is no clarity on the format and timelines involved. When will the review be happening? Can the Taoiseach assure us that it will draw on the experience of abortion care in Ireland and examine how the law and services are meeting the needs of those seeking and providing care? We hope that an independent expert on women's health will chair this review. The details of how that review will take place would be very welcome.

The Minister for Health will be bringing forward details on the review of the legislation and I hope he will do so in the next number of weeks. It will be a comprehensive review covering all aspects of the implementation to date. The Minister will come before the House to outline this.

That will be in the next few weeks.

On Monday, the trial begins of 47 Hong Kong election candidates who dared to put their names forward for election primaries last year despite the election being banned under the repressive new national security laws. The 47 people involved include Leung Kwok-hung, also known as Long Hair, the veteran democracy campaigner and left activist who spent more than 15 years in the Hong Kong legislature. They have been refused bail and face jail sentences of up to life imprisonment if found guilty of the trumped-up charge of subversion. Will the Taoiseach send the strongest possible protest to the Chinese embassy in order to register the opposition of the Irish Government and the Irish State to the trial of these election candidates?

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue. The Government, working with our European Union colleagues, has already conveyed and articulated our deep concerns about what is happening within Hong Kong more generally, particularly as regards democracy being applied. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and I will continue to make representations on this specific issue and more generally about what has been happening in Hong Kong.

Nursing homes have embedded additional measures into their day-to-day care to enhance the protection of residents and staff due to the pandemic. The scheme to support them, namely, the temporary assistance payment scheme, TAPS, is to cease on 30 June. Can the Taoiseach confirm that this scheme will continue, particularly as intensified infection prevention control measures will remain in place in nursing homes and there will be enhanced safety measures for residents, staff and visitors? Removing the scheme would be akin to the decision to not initially prioritise nursing homes. Will the Taoiseach give a commitment that the TAPS will continue, as it stands, until the recommendations of the expert group on Covid-19 in nursing homes are implemented and the relevant resources provided?

I thank the Deputy. It is important to point out that according to the most recently available HSE data from 10 May, more than 6,675 applications have been processed under TAPS and €93.9 million in direct financial support has been provided to the nursing home sector. In total, €42 million has been made available for this year while €92 million was provided in 2020. There are also additional supports available for PPE, Covid response teams and so on. The good news is that this was never meant to be a permanent scheme; it is a temporary scheme. There has been a substantial improvement in the levels of the virus in nursing homes. Serial testing is indicating very low levels of the virus. Clearly, as society begins to reopen, these supports will be reviewed and the Minister for Health and his Department will be in touch with the nursing home sector to work that out.

On 25 February, the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Senator Hackett, announced Project Woodland, a new strategy to address the licence crisis in the forestry sector. Despite the fanfare to date, Project Woodland has not delivered one additional licence. Farmers in the industry cannot wait any longer, nor can the construction sector or people who want to build homes. There are approximately 5,000 applications for afforestation, forest road and felling licences in the system. These are pending decision. Based on the current output and the fact that 195 licences were issued in April, it will take a further two years to clear the backlog let alone process any new applications.

This is bizarre; it is GUBU type stuff. People cannot get timber. It has gone up by 100%. The sawmills cannot get it and cannot sell it on to merchants and people cannot roof their houses, build extensions or do anything else in the middle of a housing crisis. This is pure and utter madness and it is unacceptable to the sector and to the farmers.

Project Woodland is a good initiative. Clearly, there have been significant backlogs as a result of all the objections to a host of licence applications in recent years. There has now been significant recruitment to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and a 90% reduction regarding aspects of this. However, there are still backlogs. I met recently with the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, the Secretary General of the Department and the assistant secretary with responsibility for this area with a view to accelerating this process and ensuring we can introduce greater capacity to get these licences processed.

A two-year delay.

I raise the urgent need to provide independent living accommodation for adults with intellectual disabilities in Manorhamilton in County Leitrim. The Taoiseach will not be familiar with the specifics, but I have emailed his office and the Minister of State with responsibility in this area, Deputy Rabbitte, with the facts. Seven years ago, a few families in Manorhamilton started working with Leitrim County Council and the HSE to provide this accommodation. Family members are, of course, extremely worried that as they get older they will be unable to care for their loved ones. Leitrim County Council is willing to provide the housing, but the HSE has stated that no funding is available to staff the facility for 2021. After eight years, the HSE must commit to funding in 2022 and I ask the Taoiseach to use his personal offices to assist in this.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. It is obviously a good and solid project in respect of the provision of independent living accommodation, which is something I strongly support. I commend the council for proceeding to build the facility. I will work with the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, the Deputies in the constituency and with the HSE to see if we can get a resolution to this.

Our programme for Government has balanced regional development at its heart. It states: "all parts of Ireland must thrive if we are to prosper as a country". Project Ireland 2040 envisages, approximately, an additional 250,000 people living in rural Ireland in the next 20 years. If that is to happen, our planning policy must show some understanding of rural Ireland and of the needs and rights of the children of farm families to continue living on their family lands as they have done for generations. When is it proposed that we will see the publication of the sustainable rural housing design guidelines? Will those guidelines protect the rights of the children of farm families to continue living on their family farms?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is currently preparing updated rural housing planning guidelines which will continue to allow for the development of homes in rural areas, while also highlighting the need to manage certain areas around cities and towns to avoid overdevelopment. He expects to receive an initial draft of the development guideline document in the coming weeks. There will then be a need for an environmental assessment, as well as internal and external consultation. It is expected that the final updated guidelines will be available later in 2021.

It is also worth noting that there has been strong delivery of new homes in rural areas in recent years, with planning permission granted for around 26,000 rural houses in the last five years. In the same period, nearly 93% of that number of rural homes were actually built, which is in sharp contrast to a lot of what is articulated about house building in rural Ireland. We only built 20,000 houses last year, and a significant number of those were in rural Ireland. That is not often said.

This weekend, raw sewage was again being discharged into the wild Atlantic from the coast at Kilkee beach. The HSE and Clare County Council prohibited bathing in the area. Raw sewage flowing through the pipes and out into bathing water has now occurred for three consecutive years, and this has now been in contravention of the EU wastewater directive for 16 years. We had been hearing that the upgrade to the infrastructure would be completed this year. However, Irish Water has now stated that it could be four years before modern sewerage infrastructure is installed in Kilkee. Local councillor, Cillian Murphy, a party colleague of ours, and the whole community is up in arms. We are asking the Taoiseach and the Government to intervene to put a spurt on to ensure we do not have to wait and to be 20 years in non-compliance with the wastewater directive. We need clean and safe bathing waters in Kilkee.

Kilkee is a popular and attractive location for many people. Many Corkonians, indeed, spend their summer holidays there. I will intervene and talk to the Minister to see if we can get this project accelerated, because pumping raw sewage into a bay of this importance is not acceptable in this day and age. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, has allocated substantial additional funds to Irish Water to improve our overall performance in respect of water treatment plants and water infrastructure.

The backlog of applicants for the driver theory test has been raised by many Deputies in recent weeks and months. The answer given has been that the test would be going online, and I was delighted to see that it did go online on the Road Safety Authority, RSA, website yesterday. Several constituents have contacted me about this issue to say that when they attempted to register for the test that the results keep showing no availability. Is the system operational yet, or is this a glitch? I tried it myself and it did not work. The response that kept coming up was that there was no availability for any dates in May, June or July. Many young people are seeking to sit the driver theory test to allow them to get a job at a local farm, perhaps driving a tractor, during the summer. They cannot do that without having sat the test first. How many people will be accommodated via this online method? If the backlog cannot be cleared in a timely fashion, could a temporary W category licence be allocated to those young people?

I thank Deputy Tully for raising this important issue. The RSA has begun offering the driver theory test online on a pilot basis and, as such, only a limited number of places are available. The RSA will offer more than 3,000 online tests in June and it aims to increase this number in the coming months, subject to the pilot not raising security or other issues. A key priority for the Government is to move to in-person theory tests as soon as the public health situation allows to allow people to undertake driver training. In light of the significant backlog of customers awaiting tests, the RSA is also working to increase capacity in its physical testing centres. This will see the number of tests in centres increase from an average of approximately 15,000 tests per month, pre-Covid-19, to build up to 50,000 per month gradually, once the service reopens. We are moving in a step-by-step approach to open driver training and testing and in recent weeks essential driver training and testing has been opened on a limited basis for non-essential workers, as well as motorcycle training and testing.

I again raise the issue of Shannon Airport. Last week, the airport was served a hammer blow by Aer Lingus when the airline announced that it was closing its permanent cabin crew base there. Government Deputies in the region met the Taoiseach last Thursday regarding this issue. At that meeting, the Taoiseach committed to meeting representatives of Aer Lingus to seek a reversal of this decision. Obviously, the Government is in discussions now with the airline, which is looking for a cash injection, a bailout or call it what you will. It is important that this cabin crew base is retained in Shannon Airport and that this is part of any deal reached with Aer Lingus, along with the airline's strategic routes which provide connectivity for business and tourism. I ask the Taoiseach to update the House regarding the talks. Did the Taoiseach meet with representatives of Aer Lingus and if so what was the outcome?

I did meet the CEO of Aer Lingus. The Deputy is correct that I met with him, Deputy Cathal Crowe and all the Deputies and Senators from the region. That meeting served to convey the sense of urgency and importance that public representatives in the mid-west, and in Limerick and Clare especially, feel about this issue, as well as the need for action concerning Shannon more generally and in respect of regional connectivity. I made it clear to Aer Lingus that the Government's priority is regional connectivity. Yesterday's decision by the European Council confirming the introduction of the digital green certificate in respect of Covid-19 to facilitate travel is an important development. The Government will be considering this and wider issues concerning the support of the aviation sector, via airlines and airports, in the coming days and next week. It is an issue which is really up there in terms of Government priorities.

The programme for Government contains a commitment in respect of a retrofitting insulation programme for housing. There is an anomaly in the current plan whereby people cannot get new works done even if minor work has been carried out on their properties within the past ten years. Does the Government have any plans to rectify the situation? If so, when will action be taken?

I will engage with the Minister on this matter. We want to have the optimal level of retrofitting in all housing in order to facilitate energy efficiency and reduce fuel poverty. I will examine the matter and talk to the Minister about it. Obviously, some people have had no access to any supports or have not had their houses retrofitted. I will certainly look into the issue.

Yesterday, the House agreed that Israel is acting illegally under international law. We have a window of opportunity to use the powerful lever of Horizon funding to pressure Israel to end its apartheid regime. The new Horizon fund, which is worth €95.5 billion, represents a chance to hold Israel to account in respect of what the House agreed yesterday is the de facto annexation of Palestinian lands. For Israel to access funding and the high-value research network relating to Horizon, it has to renegotiate a bilateral agreement with the European Commission. First, the Commission needs to seek a mandate from the European Council to enter negotiations. That is what is happening at present. The Government needs to make clear at meetings of the European Council that it will not support any mandate for negotiating with Israel. The Horizon funding represents a power lever that can be used to put pressure on Israel. Over the past seven years Israel has received €1.24 billion in funding. In comparison, Ireland, as a full member of the EU, has received €100 million less than that.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. However, I caution that we cannot overstate the leverage that can be gained from something like the Horizon fund in respect of this issue because there is not unanimity across the European Union with regard to Israel and Palestine. Ireland has had a very strong position on the matter for many years. Other member states do not share our perspective on the issue. We succeeded in having an agreed conclusion this week in respect of the issue in the context of calling for a two-state solution and a cessation of hostilities. The Deputy will recall, however, that it was very difficult for the Foreign Affairs Council to get agreement on the issue. We will continue to raise this matter at all fora, from the Security Council down, in terms of the need for Israel to adopt initiatives and policies that facilitate long-term peace, but also proper treatment of Palestinians and movement towards a two-state solution.

On behalf of the people of County Kerry, I wish to state how sorry we all were to hear about the two gardaí who were injured yesterday doing an honest day's work.

With regard to all of the young people who are waiting to sit their theory tests, when the online portal went live last night, there was absolute chaos. People are being told that they will get appointments in a year or two. That is crazy stuff. These are young people who want to get on the road. Their work is necessary. I said it last week when we raised the same issue that there are young people in the farming sector who want to be able to draw in silage, save crops and make hay and silage. There are youngsters who want to go out and do many different types of work. They are all essential workers. If they are going to work in a local shop that might be located five, six or ten miles away, that is essential work. On behalf of the young people of Ireland, I plead with the Taoiseach to put the necessary resources in place to allow them to pass their theory tests immediately. Otherwise, they will be waiting months and, perhaps, as I stated, as long as two years.

As I stated earlier, a limited number of places were made available on the pilot scheme that was announced and initiated by the Road Safety Authority. It has begun offering driving theory tests online on a pilot basis. It will offer in excess of 3,000 online tests in June and aims to increase this in the coming months. The aim is to ramp up numbers as quickly as we possibly can. We do realise the pressing nature of this issue.


On the same issue, it is hugely important that learner drivers can get the opportunity to do their theory tests and get on with having lessons and enjoying the summer. Overall, almost 150,000 people have had their tests repeatedly rescheduled throughout the year. Facing into the summer holidays, there is a real opportunity for people to take the test or have driving lessons and get the on-road practice. There needs to be a reopening of in-centre testing. A date must be set for that as quickly as possible. The opening of the online portal in the past number of hours is a very positive move. However, the numbers on the pilot are fairly limited. Looking at the lengthy delays in respect of this matter, there needs to be a greater capacity to do online tests. I ask the Taoiseach to raise with the Minister for Transport the necessity of quickly ramping up the online option. The system is already booked solid. There are no slots available today. Capacity needs to be ramped up as quickly as possible in order to give drivers the opportunity to get on the road and get their lessons done.

I thank the Deputy and others for raising this most important issue. He made a good point that the summer months represent a very good opportunity to get moving on this issue. I stated that in excess of 3,000 online tests will be offered by the Road Safety Authority in June. The authority is also working to increase capacity in its physical testing centres, a matter to which the Deputy also referred. This would see the number of tests in centres increase from an average of approximately 15,000 tests per month prior to Covid, and will build up to 50,000 per month on a gradual basis once the service reopens.

We will make further announcements at the end of the week in respect of the ongoing reopening of society. Covid-19 has had the impact here, not Government or anybody else. Therefore, the challenge is how quickly we can get this back up and running, given that it is very important for young people who are seeking employment and who just generally want to be able to get on with the process of learning to drive.

I welcome the fact that climate action was on the EU Council agenda yesterday. I wish to ask three succinct questions. Do we support the extension of the emission trading system, ETS, to new sectors so that those who produce carbon efficiently can deliver European needs more effectively? What is the Irish ask in respect of effort-sharing, in respect of which we did have a lower target recognising the strains relating to agriculture? Have we sought to change how carbon sequestration is measured by the EU in order that the huge opportunity that exists in the context of forestry and land use in Ireland can be fully exploited?

Those are very succinct and pertinent questions in the context of the debate that took place yesterday at the EU Council meeting. Ireland was broadly able to accept the conclusions. The Commissioner made a presentation. What I would say is that a simulation or modelling exercise or a comprehensive impact assessment needs to be carried out in respect of the effect of the Commission's proposals on each member state. That has not happened yet. That is the next stage of the operation. That will deal with the expansion of the ETS to other sectors, the effort-sharing aspect and carbon sequestration. Quite a number of countries are also seeking to expand the latter. Carbon sequestration would have positive implications for us in terms of land use and afforestation. Countries like Sweden and Finland would be of a similar view to Ireland. In terms of effort-sharing, we want to see the impact analysis and what will be the actual impact of the proposals on us.

The Taoiseach will be aware that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a serious impact on all health services. Oncology services have been very badly hit. There has been a drop in cancer screening, cancer diagnosis and cancer treatment. A red flag has been raised this week by Professor Seamus O'Reilly, who stressed that delays in the identification and treatment of cancer can lead to increased mortality. For every six months that there is a population-wide difficulty regarding diagnosis, it leads to increased mortality over a ten-year period. We must ensure that the investments in budget 2022 are made in cancer care, in the urgent recruitment of more consultant oncologists and in diagnostics and treatment.

I ask the Taoiseach to commit to that in budget 2022.

The budget for health this year has been very expensive and unprecedented. The issue has been to facilitate the safe return of non-Covid services. The focus in the reopening of society on a cautious and phased basis was to prioritise the return of health services. The cyberattack has hit that even more in terms of what it did to the national integrated medical imaging system, NIMIS, diagnostic system and scanning capacity, particularly in radiology. That is coming back in quite a number of hospitals. There is no doubt that we will allocate resources and do everything we possibly can to restore services, particularly cancer screening programmes, oncology services and surgery in general.

That concludes questions on promised legislation. Before proceeding, some Members are getting exercised about not being allowed to contribute on other questions. I remind them of the new rules that were agreed to. Members were putting their hands up and getting a little overwrought that I was not letting them speak. They cannot intervene on another Member's question.