Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

I want to raise the crisis facing our aviation sector. The collapse of Stobart Air last weekend came as another major blow for the sector and for our regional economies. The announcement followed the recent Aer Lingus base closures in Cork and Shannon. After 15 very difficult months, hundreds of workers have been made redundant. It is now reported that Nordica, the Estonian state-owned airline, may take over the Kerry-Dublin route.

This is welcome, as any future re-establishment of public service obligation, PSO, routes would be.

However, it begs the question as to why more was not done to protect Irish jobs, which could now be outsourced. Why was more not done to protect connectivity? Connectivity and regional economies are at risk and jobs are lost. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan's hands-off approach is seriously damaging Irish aviation. We need a survival and recovery plan now. What action will this Government take to help the aviation sector and secure the future of our regional airports?

The Deputy has moved fast on aviation from a position where he wanted nobody travelling in or out of here after Christmas and was urging me to bring in mandatory hotel quarantining in double quick time, to suddenly turning around and saying it is all the Government's fault.

Covid-19 has decimated travel. The Government has provided a range of services and in particular, we want to get back connectivity to Kerry and Donegal airports as quickly as we possibly can. Good progress is being made on that. This was a sudden announcement by Stobart Air that it had ceased trading. Aer Lingus and BA CityFlyer will operate temporary replacement services, which will cover most of the affected routes operating out of Dublin and Belfast city airports operated by Stobart Air under a franchise agreement with Aer Lingus. This will allow passengers who are affected to return home. Kerry and Donegal airports, as the Deputy knows, have been supported by Government under the PSO arrangement with about €7 million per annum. The current contract is due to expire on 31 January 2022. We discussed the replacement of those PSO services linking Dublin, Donegal and Kerry as quickly as possible at Cabinet today. That is happening in real time.

The Taoiseach has repeatedly said that his number one priority is housing. Over the last eight years, house prices have risen by 68%. As the Taoiseach is aware, my party is putting forward a Bill tomorrow to implement the Kenny report, which the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, has already said is necessary and it supports it. The land is a large component of the cost of building a house. I note that in 2018 the Taoiseach said:

I think implementing [the] Kenny [report] is morally the right thing to do - I don't think there should be windfall profits once land is rezoned but it would also undoubtedly reduce the cost of housing because the price of land at the moment is a significant factor in increasing the price of houses.

Based on those comments a couple of years ago, will the Taoiseach support the Labour Party's honest attempt to address this tomorrow through the implementation of the Kenny report in legislation?

The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage will be responding to the Labour Party's legislation in a constructive way tomorrow. That is one issue that is in the overall mix and the Minister is preparing a broad housing strategy, namely, Housing For All. Our objective is to get as many houses built as quickly as we possibly can using every available mechanism to do that. That is essential. Housing is the biggest issue facing us as a society and we have to demonstrate a capacity and put in place the policies that will enable us to build enough social houses and houses that single people and people planning a new home can be in a position to afford to buy.

Will the Taoiseach support it?

As I said, the Minister will be responding in a constructive way to the legislation. The Government has assessed this and it will be constructive in response to the Deputy's legislation.

I put it to the Taoiseach that the Government is speaking out of both sides of its mouth on the mother and baby homes report. Today in the High Court, the State will strongly defend the report of the mother and baby homes commission in legal action brought by survivors against the report. Simultaneously, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, has said that he believes survivors and intends to appoint an independent expert to review the testimony of survivors given to the confidential committee. Which is it? Does the Government support the report, as it claims in the High Court, or does it believe that there are such fundamental problems with it that it is necessary to authorise a separate review of the report? There is an inherent contradiction in the Government's approach. It cannot simultaneously defend the report and suggest that it is so fundamentally flawed that a separate review of it is required. This approach is nonsense. The Minister needs to make up his mind. He must repudiate the report and ensure that the historical record about this dark period in Irish history is accurate.

Again, that is a distortion of what the Government's position is. The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, particularly in relation to the testimonies that were given to the confidential committee, wants the voices of survivors to be given proper status in all of this.

The people in the High Court will be looking for a voice today.

The Deputy says the report should be repudiated but it is complete. When the Oireachtas decides to establish a commission of investigation, it decides from the outset that it cannot interfere or interrupt the investigation. The report has been produced and covers mother and baby homes and the county homes from 1922 to 1998, a span of 76 years. The report is approximately 3,000 pages long. It is a very comprehensive report that took five years to produce. The recommendations from the report-----

And there is now a review.

The Deputy should not keep interrupting. We want to implement quickly the recommendations from the report. I am clear that the vast majority of people are anxious that we get access to information, including birth certificates. The birth information and tracing Bill has been published. The legislation relating to Tuam is important, as is the redress scheme. The Government is focusing on implementing the recommendations.

Is the Taoiseach not even a little embarrassed by the proposals published on the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment website last Wednesday regarding the rights of workers in liquidation situations? On the issue of honouring collective redundancy agreements in liquidation situations, the Government says "No". On the issue of prioritising workers for payment in liquidation situations, the Government says "No". On the issue of making employers pay a serious penalty if they refuse to comply with soon-to-be-extended consultation provisions, the Government again says "No". With one Deputy Varadkar-like shimmy, the Government has buried half of the Cahill Duffy proposals, ignored the key issues raised by the Debenhams dispute and sent a clear message to workers who face job losses that they are on their own. It is interesting that this report was published on a Department website in a week the Dáil was in recess. This begs the question as to whether the Taoiseach is embarrassed or ashamed of the Government's proposals.

That is absolutely not the case. The Tánaiste has published these proposals and there will be continuing engagement with the social partners on the matter. There has already been engagement. We want to advance, modernise and improve the situation as it applies to redundancies and situations arising out of liquidations. We also want an improved situation more generally to protect employees and in the context of employment protection law.

Why do we still need public ownership of Shannon development? Should the Western Development Commission still get more than €2 million of public money year after year on the nod, to add to its €72 million investment portfolio? The regional problems those organisations set out to address are fully resolved. One might question if they are now victims of their own success. It is hard to argue against the recent €108 million endowment of the just transition fund for the midlands and another €28 million for the Border fund, but the south-east region is in the same economic situation as the midlands and Border regions. Surely it also needs a similar strategic development agency and fund. Will the Taoiseach give any commitment that such oversight, presumably related to lack of attention from Cabinet, will be remedied? Will he commit, on behalf of the Government, to the formation and implementation of a nationally funded, dedicated strategic development agency for the south-east region to address the ongoing regional economic deficits which have prevailed unattended for far too long?

Urban regeneration and development funding has been strong for Waterford, in particular, and for wide areas in the south east. I am not convinced that an agency, as outlined by the Deputy, would be the best model to deal with the issue but we are open to all proposals for developing increased economic activity in the south east. The south-east technological university is an advance that will significantly help the south-east region into the future. It will attract more investment from the State. Additional funding is going to be provided to technological universities through the economic recovery fund from a capital perspective. The investment through the urban regeneration and development fund in the city of Waterford is significant. Sometimes a sectoral approach can be more impactful.

The reopening of the country has been widely welcomed by businesses. I wish every business that is open all the very best. We should support them all. There are day care centres from Donegal to Tipperary, where there are several, that have tremendous voluntary boards of management, workers and volunteers. People, especially older people, have missed those centres. They have missed the acts who perform at those centres, the likes of Stefan Grace and others, who entertain them free of charge. It is part and parcel of those people's lives and they need to get back to sharing with their friends. They have lost many of those friends, unfortunately, and some of them have regressed terribly because of having no interaction with other people. They used to have social days that included music, song, dance, a meal and access to chiropody, hairdressing or whatever. Can the Taoiseach give us a date for the reopening of the wonderful day care centres throughout the country? They are desperately badly needed from the point of view of our people who are isolated. Buses bring people into the day centres, giving them a day out. They are not residential facilities, they only provide day care. They do an excellent job and are quite safe. I am talking about senior citizens.

My understanding, from the relevant Minister of State, Deputy Butler, is that the reopening and restarting of those centres is under way. I will follow up on that. Given the success of the vaccination programme, those facilities can be restarted. I will engage with the Minister of State on the matter.

Like the Taoiseach, I have met families whose lives have been destroyed by the scandal of mica and pyrite. We have all seen the gaping cracks in the side walls of houses and the holes appearing under windows and doors. We know that the level of financial distress and stigma is huge. I raised this issue with the Tánaiste nearly five weeks ago because Sligo County Council had written to the relevant Minister stating that a minimum of 140 houses in west Sligo have been significantly damaged by pyrite. I am asking for Sligo to be included in any 100% remediation scheme for homeowners. Concrete blocks containing pyrite and mica do not respect county boundaries.

I listened to the Taoiseach's earlier responses on this matter. I heard him say that he does not showboat and I accept that. I am asking for commitment from him that Sligo and any other county affected will be included in a 100% redress scheme and that those who have responsibility will bear it.

The Deputy's point is valid that the defective blocks do not respect county boundaries. The Minister is also disposed to that view and is minded to be inclusive when amending the scheme.

Carlow receives €2.7 million less annually from local property tax equalisation when compared with other counties of a similar size. This has been acknowledged by the Department and has led to considerable cuts to services. Carlow County Council tells me that it cannot take on extra staff and that it is 30 staff short at the moment. It might be looking for even more staff. The Taoiseach knows that local authorities are the hubs of their communities. Their services are essential. I believe a review of local property tax is ongoing at the moment. I ask the Taoiseach to talk to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the different Departments. We need to get funding into Carlow County Council. We cannot do without services and it is unfair that we are being neglected like this.

In fairness to the Deputy, she has never been slow to speak up and advocate for Carlow. I will engage with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage in respect of this matter, particularly in terms of the equalisation fund and what the Deputy says has been a consistent underfunding of Carlow for quite a number of years in the amount of €2.7 million per year. I will engage with the Minister and raise with him the points the Deputy has raised in respect of the local authority in Carlow. I fully understand the integral part the local authority plays in the development of Carlow town and county.

I echo the comments of my constituency colleague, Deputy Shanahan, in terms of the approach he outlined to a task force for the area.

There is no doubt, notwithstanding the urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, and the technological university for the south east Ireland, TUSE, that the south east is lagging behind other parts of the country any economic indicator, more or less.

I raise the issue of the employment law review that was promised for March of this year, to be jointly undertaken by the Departments of Justice and Enterprise, Trade and Employment and led by the Minister of State, Deputy Troy. We have seen a sea change in the world of work during the course of the pandemic, in particular, the explosion of remote working, which will hopefully move to a blended working model. We have also seen an expansion of platform working, the most visible sign of that being delivery workers. Our employment law is lagging behind. It is essential that we bring it up to date and make it fit for purse for a post-pandemic era. Where are we in terms of progress on that?

Proposals are being worked on with regard to that issue. My understanding is that something similar to the company law review process, which was established many years ago and has proven to be very effective in the area of ongoing company law review, may be developed in respect of employment law review. I will revert to the Deputy with more substantive information and details on that. The point he makes is very fair.

I agree with the Deputy's point that we must go over and above measures to redress the imbalance in economic and social development in the south east. The only issue is around the best mechanisms and models to work through to achieve that objective.

As the Taoiseach will know, the weekend announcement from Lufthansa regarding the review of the Lufthansa Technik base in Shannon affecting up to 500 jobs has sent shock waves through County Clare and the mid-west region. Today, we heard that the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, announced yet another task force; here we go again. This follows numerous task forces and reviews, which have amounted to nothing. This is an urgent issue that requires urgent action. I call on the Taoiseach to intervene and engage with the stakeholders in the mid-west region, for example, Shannon Chamber and the workers affected, and implement recommendations. More than 13,000 people in County Clare have signed a petition in County Clare to save Shannon Airport.

The Government is absolutely committed to Shannon Airport, Cork Airport and all the airports and ensuring we can protect them, particularly given the impact of Covid-19. Deputies and Senators should always reflect on the policies they announce one month as opposed to what they announce the second month. I am amazed at how everybody who was advocating for zero travel has suddenly had a complete change of mind. I understand it but decisions have consequences too.

Covid-19 has been the main factor disrupting travel and undermining the aviation industry. It was not governments or anything else. Deputies jump up and down and say it is the Government's fault. Covid-19 has disrupted travel. Mandatory hotel quarantine was brought in. The House urged the Government to bring it in much more quickly. The task force was a commitment in the programme for Government for the wider Shannon development area. It is a good thing and will yield good results.

The Taoiseach will be aware of the situation that has developed over the weekend with Lufthansa Technik, Shannon. The company is a major employer in the mid-west, providing 500 highly-skilled jobs. The Government has invested heavily in this critical company over the last 18 months by means of the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, and the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS. The company has also benefited from the rates waiver. It is critically important that the Government and its agencies engage with this company and secure the 500 jobs at risk. The current strategic review is looking at possible closure, sale or restructuring. It is important that the Government, and the Taoiseach, as Head of Government, provide every support necessary to secure these jobs.

I absolutely agree. Government agencies will engage with the company because they are high-quality jobs. They are important jobs that we want to retain in the country and the region. The whole area in question has been very effective in creating jobs relating to aviation. The Government will do everything we can to be of support to ensure the retention of jobs.

I raise the serious issue of the lack of a full-time Garda station and Garda presence in east Meath. The area has seen a serious increase an antisocial behaviour, drug crime and serious unprovoked attacks. Frantic calls for help have to go through to Ashbourne Garda Station, some 33 km away. When the Garda Commissioner reduced Garda divisions from 28 to 19, he promised increased visibility and more localised service. The complete opposite has happened in east Meath. People feel completely abandoned.

Will the Taoiseach commit, in the Government's capital plan, to include provision for a fit for purpose Garda station in the Laytown-Bettystown area? A population of 22,000 people live in that area. Gardaí are operating from a dilapidated bungalow in the middle of a housing estate and only provide Garda service 20 hours per week. I raised this matter with the Commissioner, who is aware there is an issue in the area but continues to ignore it. Will the Taoiseach raise those serious concerns with the Commissioner and commit to including it in the capital plan?

The Government has provided very substantial capital moneys through the Department of Justice and Minister for Justice to An Garda Síochána in respect of the capital requirements of An Garda Síochána, including Garda stations. The Garda Commissioner has operational authority in terms of the deployment of those resources. I understand fully the needs of County Meath and the Laytown-Bettystown area in particular. Other Deputies have been in touch with me about this matter, which will be kept under review. I will speak to the Minister for Justice about it.

I publicly thank the Taoiseach for the Cabinet's decision and commitment with regard to Kerry Airport and our public service obligation, PSO, routes to Dublin. This is of vital importance. The Taoiseach knows how important it was that this lifeline was kept open for us during the pandemic because of healthcare and other necessities, for which the airport is required. That PSO is of such importance.

We must remember that Ireland is an island of air connectivity, however. It is not just critical but critical care for both passengers and cargo. A Government is elected to serve all its people, which means regional development and balance. One cannot find a balance in anything; it must be created. In recent days and weeks, we have had the closure of the Aer Lingus crew base at Shannon Airport and the collapse of Stobart Air. I sympathise with the workers who operated the PSO services on behalf of Aer Lingus to counties Kerry and Donegal and lost their jobs.

We are all aware that the west extends from Kerry to Donegal. We have a huge decline in air services on the whole. I thank the Taoiseach for his commitment to Kerry but ask him to ensure that continues.

I thank the Deputy for conveying his thanks to the Government for working to restore services in very quick time between Dublin and Kerry. I am fully aware of the importance of Kerry Airport to enterprise in Kerry and surrounding areas. It is an enterprising county. Kerry technology park in Tralee, for example, has some very groundbreaking companies. Killarney tourism is probably the model around the country. Many people need connectivity. Kerry has companies such as Liebherr, one of the oldest foreign direct investment, FDI, companies that came into country. There has always been a strong enterprising spirit in Kerry, which needs to be reflected in connectivity. It has always had connectivity issues in terms of road transport and geographic location. The airport is, therefore, important to that location. We are very committed to the PSO provision to facilitate the continued operation of flights in and out of Kerry.

We are out of time. Apologies to the four Deputies who have not been reached today.