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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 27 May 2021

Vol. 1007 No. 7

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

I remind Members that no more than one minute is allocated for the asking of questions and that there is no more than one minute for responses.

Yesterday, my party leader, Deputy McDonald, asked the Taoiseach to clarify the future of the pandemic unemployment supports and stated that for as long as the public health emergency prevents people from going to work, the supports they rely on should be retained in full for the sectors affected. No clarity was provided by the Taoiseach but last night, according to media reports, the Tánaiste shed some light on this issue for his party. I ask him to shed light on it for the Dáil now. Will he give a commitment that the current rates of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, will remain in place until autumn? Will he commit, as he has done before, that those prevented from going back to work, either in full or in part, as a result of public health restrictions will continue to be supported at the current rates of payment?

There are 334,000 people on the PUP this week. They need that money. In the vast majority of cases, this is because they are unable to go back to their jobs because of the pandemic. In the past week, 25,800 people came off the PUP because they were able to go back to work. That is really encouraging and I want to see that trend continue in the weeks and months ahead. It is my firm view that it is too soon for us to start withdrawing or phasing out the PUP because so many people do not yet have the opportunity to go back to their jobs. People lose entitlement to their payments if they refuse to go back to their jobs, but I imagine that is pretty rare. No firm decision has been made on this matter yet. The economic Cabinet sub-committee, which I chair, will meet this afternoon. We will hear proposals from the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, on the employment wage subsidy scheme, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, on the PUP, the Ministers for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputies Darragh O'Brien and Michael McGrath, on commercial rates and other things. We will make a decision at Cabinet next Tuesday and make an announcement thereafter.

I have been requested by people working in oncology to ask the Tánaiste about the oncology service. This is a critical health service which is caught in a storm between Covid and the aftershocks of the ransomware attack. A number of oncologists are really worried about where matters stand in the context of cancer services and the long-term impact of people not being diagnosed, the lack of screening, etc. The head of cancer care in my local hospital, University Hospital Limerick, Dr. Denis O’Keeffe, has stated that he is afraid many people will fall through the cracks because of this combination of issues. On behalf of all of the people who are suffering with cancer and those who have not yet been diagnosed, I ask whether there will be a targeted plan to deal with issues of cancer care throughout the country. In particular, will there be a catch-up service in the context of cancer screening, diagnostics and surgery?

I am worried about this matter too. Based on what I have been told and my own assessment, the cyberattack has had a greater impact on cancer treatment and care than the pandemic did. Cancer care was largely maintained throughout the pandemic but the cyberattack has really disrupted it. Cancer services, radiology, diagnostic services and radio-oncology are being prioritised for restoration. There will need to be a catch-up plan to make sure that we undo a lot of the damage that has been done as a consequence of the cyberattack.

This week, Ireland became the first EU nation to declare the expansion of Israeli settlements into the Palestinian territories as a form of annexation. This is a hugely important and courageous step on the part of this Parliament. It follows on from Human Rights Watch referring to what is happening in those territories as a form of apartheid against and persecution of the Palestinian people. Given the decision taken by this Parliament this week, does the Tánaiste feel that now is the time to enact the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill that is awaiting Committee Stage? Is now the time to enact that legislation? If not, when will be the time?

The Government's position, based on the advice of the Attorney General, is that legislation of that nature is not permitted because trade is an EU competence. I know there are alternative views but it is certainly the view of the Government's legal adviser - it was also the view of his predecessor - that legislation of that nature would not stand because trade is an EU competence, not a domestic competence. We also need to bear in mind that there are other occupied territories throughout the world in addition to those to which Deputy Gannon referred.

We do not trade with them either.

It is remarkable that people have so little to say about those territories.

Today, thousands of taxi drivers are assembling in Dublin city. Over the past 15 months, their industry and livelihoods have essentially been destroyed. This industry has suffered hugely in that period. Taxi drivers are calling on the Government for extra supports for their industry and their livelihoods, and also for a moratorium on new leases in respect of taxi plates. They met the Taoiseach recently, but they have been left very frustrated about their industry. They hope to literally get back on the road, but without the supports I outlined, the industry that we all used prior to the pandemic is on its knees and requires Government support.

I acknowledge, as does the Government, that the taxi industry has been severely damaged by the pandemic. Taxi drivers have incurred enormous economic losses, much more so than the average person. It would be remiss of us not to acknowledge that the Government has done a lot to help already. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, announced a €15 million package last year. Licence fees have been waived. Like other self-employed people, taxi drivers can claim the pandemic unemployment payment and still work and still charge fares, up to a certain limit. That was a major concession. It is important that taxi drivers can operate their vehicles and still claim the PUP. There is a lump sum for those who are able to come off the PUP. We are aware of the difficulties taxi drivers face. The Minister for Transport will be engaging with them and seeing if there are other things that we can do. The best thing we can do is to get them working again.

Aer Lingus was registered as our national airline on 15 April 1936 and has been Ireland's flagship since then. Aer Lingus has carried millions of passengers into and out of Ireland, mainly from the US and Europe, via Dublin, Cork and Shannon. One could say that it is the main driver and the lifeline for the tourism industry here. It is crucially important that Ireland, as an island nation, has a strong national airline to serve our transatlantic routes in particular. Aer Lingus employed 4,500 people prior to the pandemic. Last year, Air France-KLM received more than €10 billion and Lufthansa received €9 billion in state aid from the governments of their respective countries. Will the Tánaiste outline what the Government's plans are and what supports will be made available to ensure the survival of Aer Lingus and also to ensure that there will be no more job losses at the airline?

The Government very much regrets the job losses that have occurred in airlines and aviation in general. They are principally a consequence of the pandemic and the travel restrictions that we have had to put in place. Many in this House thought our travel restrictions did not go far enough. I know Deputy Grealish was not one of them, but it is strange to hear some of those people now defending airline workers and workers in the aviation industry when they were almost chomping at the bit for stricter travel restrictions only a few weeks and months ago. I hope that airport workers and airline staff will see through that sort of hypocrisy.

In terms of what the Government has done already - and we have done a great deal - €300 million has been provided in wage subsidies for airlines and airports. That is a lot of money. If one multiplies that by ten in order to compare it with the figure for France, one gets €3 billion. Based on our population, the €300 million already provided in provided in wage subsidies for the airlines and airports has helped many people to retain their jobs. A funding package of a further €80 million is being provided for aviation and loans of €150 million have been extended to Aer Lingus. There is also a further €40 million. That is what has been provided already. It is a lot. What they need to survive and prosper is to get back flying again. I hope that the announcement the Government makes on Friday on a roadmap for a return to international travel will provide the necessary confidence.

The Taoiseach informed this House yesterday that no worker, artist or dancer should be left short-changed when the country reopens. Also yesterday, Fáilte Ireland, our national tourism development board, produced long-awaited recovery and resilience guidelines for the reopening of hospitality. All the guidelines say is that no live music is permitted indoors or outdoors. It is one short sentence. We are supposed to pride ourselves on our culture, traditional song and dance and everything else. Why is that the case? Are we going to have "The Lonesome Boatman" played as piped music in the bars or Biddy Earley's silent lament or the music of the famine ships? What does the Government have against the arts industry, the music, the song and the rinceoirí? What about the tradfests this year in small towns? What about the county fleadhs, the Munster Fleadh, the provincial fleadhs and the Fleadh Cheoil? This is our heritage. It is what we are made of, our very being. Is the Government trying to kill the spirit of our nation altogether that it will not allow a rince or a man on the fiddle, a tune or a recitation? There is no damhsa istigh or taobh amuigh. What is going on? Fáilte Ireland should be getting people back into this country on our national airline and let decisions like this be made by the Government. It does not know anything about this matter. Let it do what it is good at. Let the people live again, play, dance, sing and love each other.

I totally appreciate that this was very disappointing news for people who work in the live music sector. I can guarantee that Fáilte Ireland, our national tourism body, with which I worked closely for years, is a big supporter of Irish music and Irish arts.

This does not show it.

If the Deputy does not know the reason for this, which he should know, it is one of public health.

If there is live music-----

-----people will speak louder and they will shout and that will-----

Could we have one voice please?

Amuigh faoin spéir.

I do not think the Deputy wants to hear the answer so we will move on.

It has been an extraordinarily difficult year for Shannon Airport. Throughout much, if not all, of the past year, it has not had a chair for its board of directors. Strategic decisions need to be made at Shannon regarding its aviation business but also in respect of Shannon Heritage and its future. The chair of a board of directors is there to provide strategic guidance. When the Tánaiste was Taoiseach, Shane Ross was his Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, and I am told he wrote a book about the experience. He rang the then chair of Shannon Airport to tell her he was not going to continue her tenure. No sooner was he off the phone to her when he got a phone call from the then Taoiseach, as a result of which he changed his mind. Will the Tánaiste give the current Minister for Transport a ring to see what is happening with the appointment of a chair in Shannon? I have been trying to phone him but he does not answer my calls.

I am not sure if the former Minister, Shane Ross, has the timeline exactly right but he does have the substance right. I did ask him to extend the term of the then chair at that time, at least until he found a new one. I do not think that was bad advice because leaving a chair empty is never a good thing for a board and that is the point Deputy McNamara is making. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, does take my calls. I will certainly raise the matter with him this evening when I see him.

I want to raise the role of the Residential Tenancies Board in the registration of landlords. In 2016, a total of 29 people were prosecuted for not having their properties registered.

That dropped to only ten last year. In the area of my constituency around UCC, a survey done by the residents association, which examined the records of 242 properties, found that 142 of the properties had tenants in them but were not registered with the Residential Tenancies Board. We had a lot of problems during the summer months last year around UCC. What action is the Government going to take to make sure the Residential Tenancies Board follows through on its role by making sure that all landlords whose properties are occupied with tenants are registered?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. It is the responsibility of the Residential Tenancies Board to make sure properties are registered. There seem to be a lot of unregistered properties, from my own sense of things, particularly in our city centres, including Dublin and Cork, and that is a real problem in terms of taxes unpaid and tenants being unprotected. I know the board has received a significant increase in budget in recent years so that it can carry out inspections and take enforcement action. From what the Deputy is telling me, obviously, more needs to be done. I will certainly speak to the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, about that and ask him to talk to the Deputy directly to see what we can do in the interim.

I raise the issue of community policing. First, I wish the two injured gardaí from our area all the best in their recovery and I thank the gardaí in Dublin West who dealt with such a difficult situation. Dublin West has grown massively in the 25 years that I have lived there. Recently, as the Tánaiste will know, there have been developments in Pelletstown, Phoenix Park, Ballentree, Tyrellstown, Ongar, St. Joseph’s and Barnwell, and we will have new developments in Kellystown. Unfortunately, we have not seen a major investment in community policing resources or youth facilities to meet the growth. Limerick has the same population as Dublin West and it has three times the number of gardaí and three Garda stations, whereas Dublin West has one. Can the Tánaiste give a commitment that Garda management, whom I am meeting tomorrow afternoon, will get the resources they need and that our communities deserve?

I thank the Deputy. I take this opportunity to commend the professionalism of all the gardaí involved in securing a safe outcome to the very dangerous situation that occurred in Whitechapel, Clonsilla, the other day. I particularly want to recognise the bravery of the two detectives who were on the scene. On behalf of the Government, I wish them both a rapid and complete recovery.

The position nationally is that An Garda Síochána has never been better resourced and never had a bigger budget, and there have never been more gardaí or Garda staff. The decision as to how they are allocated around the country is not made by the Government; it is made by the Garda Commissioner and his team, and that is how it should be done, for obvious reasons. Again, I will take this matter up with the Commissioner in my conversations with him.

Obviously, some major decisions will be made by the Government today and tomorrow on the next stages. I was wondering if consideration will be given not just to the trial roll-out but to an eventual roll-out which will see live crowds return to our sporting and cultural events around the country this summer. I know all our sports organisations, fans and supporters but particularly the players are very concerned to see them reopen in a safe manner, bearing in mind the very successful tests that have happened in the United Kingdom.

I thank the Deputy. I am as keen as he is to get back to watching a match and getting back on the stands. I am increasingly confident that is going to be possible over the course of the summer. We will make a decision on this at the Cabinet meeting on Friday. I can say that the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, and the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, have worked out some plans to allow a number of trials of outdoor sporting events with spectators - thousands of spectators - to happen across June and July. Hopefully, we will be able to give the green light for that on Friday and, as well, allow resumption, not as trials but just in ordinary course, with smaller numbers like 50, 100 or 200 attending county grounds or smaller grounds.

Yesterday, Ireland published its guidelines for the hospitality sector. For the most part, they are a welcome tool for businesses as they prepare to reopen. However, these guidelines include a 105-minute time limit on tables in restaurants and bars. That is despite the Tánaiste and other Government representatives repeatedly saying that, this time around, there would be no time limits. How is it fair that people can dine and drink in a hotel without any time limits whatsoever, but if they are in a restaurant or bar right next door, a time limit is imposed? It is both illogical and unfair. I ask the Tánaiste, in the Government’s announcements tomorrow, to commit to what he repeatedly said would happen, and that is to lift the time limits this time around for whenever restaurants and bars are allowed to reopen.

I should point out that the time limit of 105 minutes, or just under two hours, applies only indoors and only when the tables are not more than 2 m apart, so if the tables are more than 2 m apart, there is no such time limit. The reason for it is that if people spend more than two hours in each other's presence in the same room, they are considered to be close contacts, and it is to avoid an entire dining room or an entire restaurant being deemed close contacts.

The guidelines that came out the other day are more liberal than what we had in December or in August and September. They are not the final word on this and they can be reviewed again in a few weeks' time. The Deputy should bear in mind that hotel restaurants, at least indoors, are only open to residents and they are not open to people coming in from outside. They may need to be aligned if we allow that.

We are all hoping for good news tomorrow and we all want individual training to be able to recommence indoors from 7 June, as planned. I recently received confirmation from the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, that when it comes to lifting restrictions, the guidance for performing arts and dance will be the exact same as for sport. That means we will be treating our children who play sport the same as children who dance, and that is really welcome. Before Christmas, dance schools in my area were able to return to practice under individual training guidelines. Approved Sport Ireland guidance allowed an agreed number of dancers to be socially distant in a safe space and to train together under the supervision of an instructor. Can the Tánaiste promise our children, who have been missing out on so much for so long, clarity on when dancing and performing arts can return indoors? Will he ask for that clarity to be given tomorrow during the announcement? Children and their dance and performing arts teachers want to know, and they deserve to know, that they are not an afterthought and they will not be overlooked.

I thank the Deputy. I express my admiration for the Deputy’s commitment to this issue, which I know she has raised on a number of occasions on behalf of parents and children. I cannot make any commitment today but, once again, she has put it firmly on my radar and that will feed into the discussions we have tonight and tomorrow. I think the indication given by the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, is that the rules we apply to indoor training for sport should be the same as those for dance, and that seems logical to me.

Last year, under pressure, the Tánaiste finally accepted the need to freeze rents. Now, from July, the Government plans to allow landlords to once again hike them up. Even worse, tenants are being told that, rather than a 4% rent increase in the rent pressure zones, they can face up to an 8% increase as landlords are allowed to impose last year's 4% as well. It is bad enough that the rent freeze is being lifted but why on earth are landlords being allowed to apply a rent increase from last year and, effectively, get around the 4% rule? A woman who contacted me is facing an increase of almost 7%, which she simply cannot afford to pay. The Tánaiste has spoken about avoiding a cliff edge in plans to extend business supports. Does he not accept that, for many who have lost out due to Covid, an 8% rent hike in July is also a cliff edge that they are facing? Will he agree, at the very minimum, to intervene to avoid this cliff edge?

I thank the Deputy. I will check that out and speak to the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, about it. As the Deputy knows, in the rent pressure zones, which cover the vast majority of tenancies in the country, the maximum increase is 4%.

I did not envisage that people would be able to apply a retrospective year. An 8% increase for anyone would be a very large increase in any one year. I must admit to not being aware of that and I will talk to the Minster about it.

Workers at the Smurfit Kappa newspaper printing press in Kells, County Meath, learned a couple of weeks ago that, subject to regulatory approval by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, the operation in Kells is to be acquired by KIP Limited, an indirect UK incorporated subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp UK. Workers there are deeply concerned that their terms and conditions of employment, including redundancy entitlements, will be hollowed out in the process. Many of the workers have decades of loyal service to Smurfit, which is a successful and profitable company. Is the Tánaiste aware of this proposed acquisition? Does he have an opinion on it? What assurance can he offer as Tánaiste that the terms and conditions of employment, including redundancy entitlements, will be protected?

I am not aware of it. The Department does receive notifications of redundancies and sometimes of acquisitions. I have not seen this come across my desk yet. It might be that it falls under the transfer of undertakings and the staff would receive protections under that, but I would have to check it out. I will ask my officials to make contact with the company and see what we can do.

I speak today on behalf of the pubs and restaurants that will not open next week. I call for consideration of their plight when the Cabinet meets tomorrow to discuss the further reopening of the economy and consider how these businesses feel when they see other indoor venues opening for dining and drinking next week when they are not able to open. I am calling for fairness and consistency in how we treat all pubs and restaurants.

I also call for an early signal that there will be continuation of the supports in place for pubs and restaurants long into the future until they can stand on their own feet again, given what they have endured over the last 15 months. I also ask that the reopening grant be made available to all pubs. I also ask that the Government call time on the 105-minute limit as it will only encourage pub crawls and grub crawls. It will be counterproductive and it is something we need to do away with.

Okay, Deputy I am calling time on this question.

I should say again for the record that the 105-minute rule only applies indoors and only applies where tables are less than 2 m apart. It will be a decision, and I appreciate an expensive decision, for restaurants and pubs as to how they configure their tables. The guidelines are not the final word on this and will be reviewed in a few weeks' time if the epidemiological position continues to improve.

The reopening grant will be there for everyone who reopens, pub or restaurant. The Government's intention is that once reopening occurs, they will get the grant. I agree and we appreciate that the Covid-19 restrictions support scheme, the weekly payment for businesses that are closed, will have to stay in place for businesses that are only able to operate outside, at least until they are allowed to operate inside again, and that the wage subsidies will need to stay in place for quite some time.

A response to a parliamentary question stated that the HSE paid debt collection agencies over €2.4 million in the last four years to collect money owed by patients such as €100 emergency department fees. Almost €600,000 was paid to debt collectors by the HSE in 2020. The HSE's use of a debt collection agency is an incredibly regressive measure, especially during a public emergency, particularly when it is going after people who have lost jobs and loved ones and who have been impacted by Covid-19. It is plainly and simply wrong. Does the Tánaiste believe the HSE should engage the use of private debt collection agencies to go after people, many of whom are not in a position to pay bills due to extenuating circumstances?

People have a social obligation to pay their bills and taxes and settle their debts because if they do not do so, they pass those bills and costs onto society and onto other people. That is why they have a moral obligation to do the right thing. I appreciate there will be individual circumstances where people cannot pay for one reason or another. Whether the HSE uses debt collection agencies or collects the debts directly, it needs to be sensitive of that. Even in the most difficult circumstances it is usually possible to agree some form of payment scheme, even if it is over a long number of years and people should do that.

I am deputising for Deputy McGuinness. The Ceann Comhairle's office should have been notified I am to take his slot.

That is fair enough. If the Deputy is, I was not notified of that but he may go ahead.

This relates to the online driver theory test. There was an announcement during the week that it was possible to apply for the theory test online. That is very welcome. Some 3,000 slots were taken within minutes. There is a lot of frustration. I know individuals whose appointments have been rescheduled six times. For a young person living in Cork and applying for a theory test, the nearest appointment is in Donegal in July. The online process for the theory test will be a great success, I have no doubt. Can we get a commitment that the process will be expanded in order that more young people will be allowed to apply and get their driver theory test? Having a licence or a theory test in place could be the difference for young people getting back to work.

I wish to raise Shannon Airport and the announcement made last week. I encourage the Tánaiste to take the three and a half hour journey down to County Clare and engage with the workers and hear how they are being directly impacted by the recent announcement.

I am happy to engage on the issue of Shannon, alongside my colleagues. I have already been talking to Aer Lingus. As the Deputy knows, to secure the future of the airport we will need to allow people to return to international travel again. The Deputy also will be aware that for some time, her party thought the travel restrictions we brought in were not strict enough. I am glad that she has changed her position on that, if indeed she has.

On the earlier question, it sounds like we need more slots, given that they were filled so quickly. I do not know whether that is practical but I very much appreciate that young people need to get on the road, they need the freedom of the road to get to work and college, and we need to make sure more slots are available if we can.

Sitting suspended at 1.08 p.m. and resumed at 1.48 p.m.