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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 27 May 2021

Vol. 1007 No. 7

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

The new personal injuries guidelines have been in effect now for over a month. Sinn Féin supported the Judicial Council Act and these new guidelines for one simple reason, which is that they would bring greater certainty to the level of personal injury awards, reducing the cost of claims, and by doing so should reduce the cost of insurance for customers.

This is only going to happen if insurance companies pass on in full the savings to their customers. As the Tánaiste has said himself, these new guidelines will reduce the level of awards for soft tissue injuries by an average of 50%. In some cases, the cut in the level of awards is as much as 69%. Put simply, these guidelines will provide significant savings for the insurance industry that must be passed on to their customers in full.

In 2019 the insurance industry made cast-iron guarantees to the Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach that it would reduce premiums if personal injury awards reduced in this way. It told this committee that it would reduce motor insurance premiums by 15% and business insurance by 20%. That is straight from the industry’s mouth. The new personal injury guidelines have provided for just that. We now need to see insurance prices fall and to fall now.

The question that we need to ask ourselves is whether we can trust the insurance industry to deliver on its promises in full. The answer to that question should be a clear “No”. The industry cannot and should not be trusted to deliver on its own.

In September, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, found after a four-year investigation that five insurance companies, the biggest players in the Irish industry, engaged in anti-competitive cartel-like behaviour and price-fixing over a 20-month period from 2015 to 2016 that led to higher prices for consumers. Indeed, during this period we saw all insurance premiums increase by 21% year on year.

Yesterday, at a meeting of the finance committee, two of these insurance companies rejected these findings, showing contempt for the commission and for their customers. That is the industry that we are dealing with and it should not be trusted at face value. This Dáil cannot provide it with huge savings and then cross our fingers and hope that these savings will be passed on in full to their customers.

At present, that is exactly what we are doing with the new personal injury guidelines. The industry can and should be held to account to ensure that it passes on the savings in full to the customers. That is exactly what is happening in Britain. When the level of awards was reduced there, legislation was passed to ensure that the industry passed on these savings, pound for pound, to their customers.

Many of the big beasts of the Irish insurance industry, such as AXA, Aviva, AIG, Allianz, Zurich and RSA, also operate in Britain and are the big beasts of the insurance market there and are subject to these requirements. The insurance industry here should be subject to the exact same level of scrutiny.

I argue very strongly, therefore, that we need the same type of oversight here. We need to ensure that pound for pound, euro for euro, the savings that will be made by the industry as a result of the dramatic cuts in all awards are passed on to their customers and passed on now. Will the Tánaiste agree that similar oversights and regulations should be brought in here in order that the insurance industry is required to submit information to the Central Bank each year to show the savings that have been made as a result of these guidelines and how those savings have been passed on to their customers?

In my view this will not only hold the industry to account but it will apply pressure on insurance companies to do the right thing right now, which is to cut insurance premiums. By doing so and by introducing this oversight, they will have had nowhere left to hide.

I thank the Deputy. I will start by recognising the Deputy’s work down the years in highlighting this issue, which has been very helpful to us in government in enabling us to act on this issue. The proposal that the Deputy makes is worthy of consideration and would be a matter for the Minister for Finance rather than for me but if the Deputy would like to share it with us or produce a paper or document on it, if he has not done so already, we would be happy to give it consideration. On the face of it, it sounds like a sensible proposal but I would have to see the detail before I could say so for sure.

On the wider issue, the Government has embarked on a major reform of the insurance sector in Ireland that has been led by me as Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. I head a ministerial committee, which is now implementing the action plan for insurance reform and it is one of those occasions when we are probably ahead of schedule in implementing the major recommendations.

The biggest reform was of the personal injuries guidelines, which has been done and I recognise the Minister, Deputy McEntee’s work in that regard. That has reduced awards and as awards have been reduced, we now expect that premiums should also be reduced. That is logical and it is also the commitment that the industry has made. The Criminal Justice (Perjury and Related Offences) Bill has now been put in place. That legislation will tackle false and exaggerated claims.

We have reforms under way to the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, PIAB, led by the Minister of State, Deputy Troy. We will make changes to the duty of care legislation and we are also making reforms to the CCPC to improve its powers as to competition. All of these reforms are going to make a difference and not just the personal injury guidelines reform.

I have to be very clear that the reason we made these reforms and changes was so that insurance would become more available and affordable for motorists, homeowners and businesses. As these reforms are now happening and being realised we expect the insurance industry to do what it is supposed to do and said it would do, which is to reduce premiums for motor and home insurance and for employer liability, EL, and public liability, PL, for businesses. The Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, is going to individually meet all of the CEOs of the insurance companies and he is already doing that to impress this on them and if we can use the regulatory function of the Central Bank to monitor this, press them further and hold them to account on this, then I believe the Deputy's proposal is a very good suggestion.

I thank the Tánaiste for his response. We have done more than just produce a paper on this but have produced legislation. I look forward to the Tánaiste's views on this and we will have an opportunity to discuss and debate this on Second Stage shortly.

The key thing for me is if this sort of oversight is brought in, it says very clearly to the insurance industry that it has to show clearly that every single euro that has been saved as a result of reduced awards has been passed on to the customers. Over the past seven days, I have quizzed and grilled five of the major insurance companies in the finance committee. Some of them have suggested that these personal injury guidelines, which only took effect last month, have been factored into premium reductions as far back as five and six months ago, which is absolute nonsense. That is why we need a mechanism for all of these companies. The six largest companies in Ireland are also the six largest companies in Britain and they abide by this regulation, which the UK Parliament passed into law, which forces the industry to show that it has passed on these savings euro for euro. I would welcome this type of commitment because as I have said previously, this is an industry that we cannot take at face value and we have a duty here to ensure that the laws that we pass are having the desired effect, which is that the customers are benefiting and not the companies.

I thank the Deputy and he will acknowledge that in the past, the Government has accepted legislation from him on the insurance issue and we will be willing to do so again and to work with him on this and give his proposal full consideration. As I did not hear what the insurers said at the committee, I do not want to comment directly on what I did not hear them say but if they said that they had already factored in the personal injury guidelines into their premiums, I would find that hard to believe. How would they have known what figures the Judicial Council had come up with?

I was not aware of the figures until I saw them, so I cannot imagine how they would have been aware of them either. My expectation is that now that the personal injury guidelines are in place, the provisions they have to make should be lower and, therefore, premiums should fall over the next couple of months or at least as people get their renewals. I have heard some anecdotal evidence of that happening but have not seen any proof of it as yet. As already stated, the message is clear from the Government. We brought about this reform to reduce the cost of insurance and make it more available, and we expect the insurance companies now to deliver. We are open to any proposals that will help us monitor them and hold them to account so that it happens.

Today, the people have hope. Our economy and society are on the verge of reopening and that is very welcome. However, the Minister for Health came to the House earlier and dropped a bombshell as regards vaccine delivery. There are a number of issues I want to raise with the Tánaiste as a result of that. These are not gotcha questions; they are just to elicit information so that the public can be aware. There is no way in which we can meet the 82% first-dose target or the 55% target for full vaccination by the end of June. We were meant to receive 470,000 doses of Janssen next month from a total order of 600,000. It was meant to be our workhorse vaccine. Obviously, the Tánaiste was aware of this, but will he inform the House as to what he expects to be the percentages we will get to in the context of the administering of first and second doses by the end of June? I know it will be a guesstimate but, for the information of the public, I would appreciate if he could give us an indication. I never believed that 55% was achievable for second doses but I did believe that 82% was achievable.

I want also to ask about the Government's discussions with the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, as a result of the information that came from the Minister for Health this morning. Was NPHET fully aware, in its discussions from which it has given advice to the Government, that this drop in vaccine delivery was going to happen? Was that considered as part of the advice NPHET gave? Will the Tánaiste confirm whether that variable was part of the mix in the context of the advice NPHET gave to the Government? A big announcement is due to be made on Friday and I do not want the public to have an anxious 24 hours, given the positive vibe that has been given out by the Tánaiste and other members of the Government regarding the advice coming through from NPHET. Was this part of the discussion and was NPHET fully aware of what was happening?

My third issue relates to a question I have asked previously. I want some information. There are more than 400,000 people, some of whom are watching this debate, who are aged between 60 and 69 years. A study from Public Health England shows the first dose of AstraZeneca is only 33% effective against the Indian variant. The Minister for Health clearly stated earlier that there is no intention of giving a second dose of Pfizer or Moderna to this cohort. He was less clear about reducing the gap between doses from between 12 and 16 weeks to eight weeks. I accept that doing so could be disruptive of supply. However, that is secondary to the fact these people are likely to be the most vulnerable, will have to wait the longest to be fully vaccinated and are at risk from new variants. Will the Government please ask the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, to discuss this matter? I am not an expert, nor is the Tánaiste. Can we just get advice from NIAC on it?

To conclude, I reiterate that these are not gotcha questions. What will be the levels of first and second dose by the end of June? Was NPHET fully aware of the vaccine drop-off as regards the advice it gave to the Government this week? Will the Government ask NIAC about reducing the gap between doses for 60- to 69-year-olds?

The people have every reason to be hopeful about the summer ahead. The number of people in hospital is below 100, the number in ICU is below 50 and cases are stable at approximately 400 or 500 a day, as I predicted they would be several months ago, without falling much below that given the level of reopening. We are ahead of ourselves in terms of where we thought we would be regarding hospitalisations and cases. For that reason, we can look forward to a very positive announcement on Friday regarding the reopening of society and economy and the phased return to international travel, events, etc.

The vaccine programme is going really well. Most people acknowledge that. I recognise all those involved, namely, the task force, the staff and the volunteers, for what they are doing. As we have always said, the only constraint is supply. It is still the case that once vaccines come into the country, 95% of them are in somebody's arm within a week. The targets we gave were always on the basis of the caveat relating to supply. That was made clear by the Taoiseach at the time. Where we stand now is that more than 2.5 million vaccine doses have been administered, and by the end of this week, more than half the adult population will have received at least one dose of the vaccine. That is very good progress. We expect to open the portal to people between 40 and 44 years of age in the coming days.

The targets, as I said, have always been subject to supplies arriving on time. If the supplies do not arrive on time, there is a risk we will miss those targets. That now appears to be likely. If we do miss the target, it will be because of factors beyond our control, namely, supplies of the vaccine. We hope to be able to provide revised targets as part of the announcement on Friday.

I do not know what NPHET was aware of or at what point in time. I have not had any direct engagement with the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, or anyone in NPHET for a couple of weeks. What I can say is that when I met the Commissioner Thierry Breton, who is in charge of vaccine supply, in Brussels last week, he indicated that there would be an issue with Johnson & Johnson supplies but was unable to come up with a number or tell me what it would be. It is only in recent days that anyone would have been aware of what the reduction in supplies was likely to be. We still do not know for sure, as the Deputy will know from the Minister for Health's comments this morning. If we do miss targets, I think we will only miss them by a few weeks because orders that were expected to arrive at the end of June might now arrive in early July. We are able to vaccinate 300,000 to 400,000 a week, so once we get the vaccines, we will get them out.

In the context of the AstraZeneca vaccine interval, I understand the case the Deputy has made on this and I am sympathetic to it. The most recent advice from NIAC, only in the past couple of days, is that the interval should remain at 12 weeks. That is its existing advice. If that changes, it changes. We know from the manufacturer that the interval can be as low as 56 days, but the advice from NIAC remains a 12-week interval.

I appreciate that this is just a process of trying to get information out to people. As regards the Tánaiste's response, it is reasonable that the Government will tell us on Friday, as long as it is Friday, what the expected level of first and second doses by the end of June is. That is reasonable and I have no issue with it. I am concerned, however, about one part of the Tánaiste's reply, namely, whether NPHET was fully aware of the issues regarding vaccine delivery when giving the advice upon the basis of which the Government is making the decisions it will announce on Friday. The Tánaiste has been clear that he does not know whether NPHET was aware of those issues. That will create a level of anxiousness among the public. That is a concern, particularly as we all want society to reopen.

I stress that the Government must ask NIAC or NPHET to state, in a comprehensive way, why they are not considering, from a scientific point of view, reducing the interval between first and second doses for those aged 60 to 69. I have been inundated with messages from people all over the country in respect of this matter since I first raised it. It is a genuine concern. I am not qualified in respect of this matter, so I would appreciate if NIAC would make that advice public. Will the Tánaiste ask it to do so?

It is worth pointing out that the vaccine programme is run by the HSE rather than NIAC or NPHET, although obviously NIAC and NPHET have a role. They are much the same people, a lot of the time, writing letters to each other but that is another day's work.

The Deputy asked that NIAC should explain its advice as to why we should continue to have a 12-week interval between the two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. That is a reasonable request. In fairness to both NIAC and Professor Butler, they have been very willing to do that in weeks gone by and I am sure they would be willing to do it again. The manufacturer says a gap of 56 days is possible, not less than that. The current advice here is that 12 weeks is still the optimum. As long as that is the advice, it is reasonable that the experts should explain that and I am sure they will.

I thank the fishing organisations for the peaceful protest in Cork yesterday. I was disappointed to think we have two senior Ministers, Deputies Coveney and McGrath, and our Taoiseach, who I found out afterwards was canvassing around Dublin Bay North, did not bother to meet with the peaceful protesters in Dublin. No Fine Gael politician turned up, which is a disappointment, but remember, when the election comes, they will be knocking on their doors.

Today, I must speak about last Monday. Councillors in Cork county were handed a comprehensive independent report compiled by the All-Island Research Observatory at Maynooth University, which has vindicated every word from my mouth since my election to this House in 2016. Cork county has been getting the lowest funding from the State of any county in this country. Many of the councillors who read this report already knew the perilous funding situation coming from Government, but one Fine Gael councillor had the cheek to try to insult us, as Deputies, by telling us to get off our butts and get the funding to Cork county, even though it is his party that has been in Government with Fianna Fáil for decades and has stood over this national scandal.

This damning report of successive Government failures states that we have the lowest CLÁR funding per capita, this being funding for disadvantaged areas, despite having the highest CLÁR population. The report also states that Cork county has the fourth lowest LEADER funding allocation in the State, despite being one of the largest counties. The report goes on to state that Cork county has continually ended up with the lowest share of grants in the State, with massive short falls in rural regeneration funds, village renewal funds, local improvement scheme funding and greenway funding. The report states that the roads in Cork county will take 52 years – remember that Tánaiste – to bring them up to standard. It states we need €750 million to catch up with the rest of the country.

West Cork roads are appalling. Roads in Bandon, Dunmanway, Bantry and Skibbereen are a danger to anyone who travels on them by car and people are incensed. Bypasses in Innishannon, the completion of the southern bypass in Bandon, the new northern bypass in Bandon and bypasses in Bantry all lay idle as no money is being allocated in spite of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil politicians making announcements, year in, year out, for decades, of funding becoming available. The people of Cork county are paying more taxes than any of our county counterparts. We have the highest motor tax and the highest carbon tax rate than any other county. Simply put, the people of Cork county are paying to make sure that the rest of the country’s infrastructure is being put in place.

When I raised the lack of funding getting into Cork county with the Taoiseach a number of months ago, I asked him to set up a task force for west Cork to see whether a task force could even the playing pitch; the Taoiseach refused. What was the Taoiseach hiding? Why did he not want this task force? Was he afraid it would end up with a report like the one we have now? Is Micheál Martin scared of the truth and the proof of the Government's neglect of west Cork? Today, I ask the Tánaiste, why is Cork county being treated appalling by successive Governments in relation to funds for our county. Will the Tánaiste accept this damning independent report of underfunding by successive Governments and its findings and what action will he take to rectify this shocking wrongdoing?

I am afraid I have not seen the report and I was not notified that Deputy Collins was going to raise it. Therefore, it is difficult for me to comment on it but I will take a look at it in the coming days. I wonder whether it is a comparison of all the local authorities in Ireland because it is the case that quite a number of Dublin local authorities do not receive much in Government grants. Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown is an obvious one and my county council in Fingal has received very little, almost nothing, in Government grants for road maintenance, for example, for a particular reason. That is because wealthier local authorities receive less funding than less well-off local authorities, for example, those in the west and very rural local authorities.

If one looks at the way local authorities are funded, they get their funding from a number of sources. There are grants from central Government. There is the local property tax, LPT, commercial rates and there are things like development levies and charges. Local authorities control three of those four streams and can raise money if they choose to through the LPT, through commercial rates, through development levies and other charges. One stream comes from central Government, so when one looks at how much money local authorities have, to suggest that it is all about how much they get in central grants from Government is to misunderstand and misrepresent the situation, because local authorities have a lot of control over how much funding they have. They set the LPT and the commercial rate and they decide on things like development levies and charges. While many authorities receive a lot of Government grants, it is the local authorities that are least well off that tend to receive the most per capita, and that is how public spending generally works in a democracy such as ours.

Let us take a closer look at the grants that have been given out over recent years. West Cork and Cork county were continually overlooked in recent years. Look at the rural regeneration funds. West Cork had a shovel-ready project which ticked all the boxes for two years, namely, the Schull Harbour development project, which could have created 100 jobs in a rural peninsula. I pleaded with the Tánaiste, when he was Taoiseach, with the then Minister, Deputy Ring, and the current Taoiseach, to get this project the funds it deserved, but not one cent came to west Cork. At the same time, three rural regeneration projects in Mayo got €6.4 million in total. The first one got €1.8 million, the next got €2.6 million and the third got €1.9 million. This and other aspirational non-shovel-ready projects got millions throughout the county, but west Cork and Cork county got zero funding. This year, west Cork put forward two great projects: the Dursey Island cable car project in Castletownbere and the Bandon public realm plan. Surely, if rural regeneration funding was in an honest capacity, we would have had funding for at least one of the two projects, but again we got zero funding.

Will the Tánaiste promise today to launch and independent inquiry as to what has gone on in Government Departments for years to allow this scandal of underfunding for Cork county? Will this independent inquiry see heads roll in Departments where wrongdoing is found out? Will he immediately support my call for setting up a task force in west Cork to try to repair the damage done for decades so that we can have, not a greater amount of funds, but equal funding? Will he read this report and act on its findings?

I will certainly look at the report, but it is very strange for any Deputy in this House to call for an independent inquiry, to state what the outcome should be and then to state what the punishment should be. That is nonsense, Deputy Collins. That is not what an independent inquiry does. An independent inquiry looks at something independently, it does not have a predetermined outcome and it certainly does not have predetermined sanctions for people. I think the Deputy is taking a very strange approach to this, if that is his view.

The rural development fund of €1 billion and the urban development fund of €2 billion are competitive funds and the projects are assessed independently and are scored, or at least that is what is supposed to happened, and the best projects get the funds. It is not divided on a per capita basis. These are national funds, and funding is supposed to go to the projects that score highest.

The "Prime Time" programme about the loss of lives due to mental health issues would have brought a tear out of anyone's eye. Over the last 16 or 18 months during the Covid pandemic, many people have struggled with mental health. In Roscommon, the acute unit, which was once a 33-bed unit, was reduced to a 23-bed unit. Over recent years, the HSE in its great wisdom decided it would close day-care centres and, indeed, hostels in the likes of Ballaghaderreen and Athleague and, unfortunately, Renbrack house in Boyle was another recent casualty to this system it is running. There is fear that the hostel in Strokestown is going to close as well. I went back and looked at figures in 2019 and one hotel for vulnerable people - we are talking about vulnerable people here - was given €30,000 to accommodate them. The Tánaiste is well familiar with the situation in the Rosalie unit for people with Alzheimer's disease and mental issues, where a battle went on for several years.

On 8 June 2020, the Tánaiste and Paul Reid officially opened the CAMHS Connect mental health service. There was great fanfare with €2.5 million to be spent on this great idea. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that the televisions landed into those premises are worth approximately €1,200 each. It is all dolled up and ready to go, but after such a launch with all the cosmetic, which seems to be the HSE’s main work in that it wants to make it look good in theory, unfortunately, there is no money to give to this service now. Does the Tánaiste think it is disgusting that, after having launched this on 8 June last year when he said this service would be available, the vulnerable people in that county are once again left high and dry?

Does he think it is acceptable that hotels get €30,000 to provide the service while hostels owned by the State have been closed? At the moment, there is an acute unit comprising 23 beds that is full to capacity. There is no step-down facility. What is the vision of the HSE in respect of this matter? Will the Minister get involved in dealing with it? Will the Tánaiste, who launched CAMHS Connect, which no one will deny was a great idea, get involved to make sure that money is provided in respect of that service for the people of County Roscommon and the wider area, which also straddles the county borders of Mayo and Galway? Will he make sure that the closure happening in Roscommon, which is being carried out by people who would rather buy pictures for a building and not open it in order that they can look good and talk about what they did, will be stopped once and for all?

The pandemic has taken a toll on many people’s mental health for many different reasons, including isolation, loss of work, loss of income and bereavement. Thankfully, we have not seen any increase in suicide rates during the pandemic period. We worried at the start that this might happen. However, there have been increases in things like calls about domestic violence and referrals to our services. For that reason, Government has put in many additional resources for mental health across the country.

Our mental health budget for this year is €1.1 billion, which is the biggest budget for mental health ever in the State and an increase of €50 million on last year. That demonstrates the Government’s commitment to improving our mental health services. With that in mind, some of us heard Sophie White this morning on the radio talking about the mental illness that has affected her, namely, bipolar affective disorder, and how we need to improve maternity and mental health services for women during and after pregnancy. That is something we have been working on for some time. We have seen the budget for that increased and incorporated in the national maternity strategy. I pay tribute to Sophie White's bravery in speaking about her mental health issues so publicly. Listening to her reminds us that whatever progress we have made is not enough and that we have much more to do.

I am glad the Deputy referred to the Rosalie unit. I launched that project with Paul Reid, as the Deputy said, last year. It was the brainchild of my colleague and friend, the former Minister of State, Jim Daly. I am disturbed to hear that it has not been delivered or brought to fruition. That is news to me. I will follow up on the matter. Perhaps there are good reasons but it was very much part of the vision for mental health services, particularly in the west and in rural Ireland, that they would be provided in this more modern way using technology and remote services and functions. I guarantee the Deputy that I will follow up on that today and see what the problem is. The HSE has a budget of €22 billion this year, which is huge. There must be a reason other than finance for it not going ahead, but I will check up on it.

On the other services in Roscommon, I am not familiar with them and do not want to comment without knowing enough about them. I will let the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Butler, know that the Deputy raised them here and ask her to talk directly to or correspond with him.

It is good to hear that the Tánaiste is disturbed, given that he launched the service in question. I will tell him the reason. Those involved are saying that their budgets are gone. In one area, they bought pictures costing €250 each to put on the walls in order to make things look nice. Televisions have been put in. Painters are going everywhere in different places. Now, however, the HSE is saying that it has run out of money and that its budget is gone. It is good to know, and I do not doubt the Tánaiste in this regard, that, nationally, more money is being given to mental health services. However, it is not a lot of good to somebody in County Roscommon who is vulnerable and who does not have the service in question to be told that more money has been provided nationally but, tough luck, the money has run out in Roscommon.

The hostels to which I refer were step-down facilities. Unfortunately, with the 23-bed unit full to capacity, there does not appear to be a step-down facility in Roscommon to help people on their journey. I again ask the Tánaiste that the money required be put in by the HSE for the staffing of this new innovative idea the Tánaiste talked about and with which he, Jim Daly and Paul Reid were involved. Will the Tánaiste make sure that the HSE prioritises this as a matter of urgency? In the context of mental health, people in Roscommon, Galway, Mayo and throughout the west of Ireland matter as much anybody else in any other part of the country, regardless of budgets.

The Deputy has my assurance that I will make inquiries about this today. It is only May. I do not understand how the budget could be gone. The national budget for the HSE this year is €22 billion. We are going to struggle to finance it in years ahead but it has never been bigger. The budget for mental health is €1.1 billion and has never been greater. It includes plenty of provision for improvements and new developments. I will make inquiries on the matter today and get back to the Deputy as soon as I can.