Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

I have a bit of advice for the Tánaiste. Instead of offering apologies on my behalf in a patronising way, maybe he would consider an apology to the tens of thousands of people locked out of the housing market after his Government of ten years, or to the hundreds of thousands paying eye-watering rent as a result of his policy.

I will focus on what the Chief Medical Officer said yesterday in confirming that the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, advice on changes to the vaccine roll-out for younger people was not factored into NPHET's modelling. It is reported the Taoiseach advised the Cabinet that this was factored into the modelling when the Cabinet was making the decision. Can the Tánaiste confirm which one it is?

The key ingredient to reopening society is an accelerated vaccine roll-out and we need to see a plan. When will we see the new modelling which builds on the NIAC recommendations? When we will get sight of the revised timelines and targets for the vaccine roll-out? This is a race between the variants and the vaccine roll-out but one would think, looking at the Government response, that it is a bicycle race. There was no contingency planning. When will we see these plans?

It is a matter of opinion but my opinion is that nobody should be shouted at, shouted down or shouted over in their workplace. It constitutes workplace bullying in pretty much any other scenario and when the Deputy does it, he should apologise for it. Perhaps he does not think so and perhaps the Leas-Cheann Comhairle does not think so but I do. The standards we uphold in this House are what people follow and if the Deputy behaves in the way he does in a workplace, he sends a signal to other people that it is okay for them to behave in that way. I do not think he should do that and we will come back to this another time.

In relation to the Deputy's question, which I am trying to answer as he interrupts me again, we will have information on the revised roll-out of the vaccine programme in the next couple of days. That work is being done by the HSE at the moment.

I will ask about antigen testing in more detail. The chief scientific officer, Professor Mark Ferguson, did the report. It was never implemented because of issues in relation to NPHET. He suggested serial testing was very effective in respect of opening up society, particularly for travel, but obviously, we are now dealing with issues relating to hospitality and other industries.

According to the Minister for Health, there is now another expert rapid test group, as it is called, to be headed up by the very eminent Professor Mary Horgan. What are the timelines for this group, what are its terms of reference and how is it differentiated from Professor Ferguson's group?

The Ferguson report on antigen testing recommended that an implementation group be established to implement the report. The group Professor Horgan is now chairing is that implementation group. It follows on from the Ferguson report. We have very advanced plans for antigen testing in third level institutions in September and October. That is part of this initiative. I have guidance on antigen testing in the workplace, which we are encouraging employers to do, and a lot of them are. We will be carrying out antigen testing at a pilot concert quite soon. It is all that kind of work.

What about hospitality?

Hospitality certainly is also a potential option.

Last Saturday, on the 16th anniversary of the events that led to his death, I once again marched alongside the family of Terence Wheelock and the community of the north inner city. We met peacefully and in a socially distanced way at the Garden of Remembrance and walked to Store Street Garda station. I was there not only to support a family I have known since I was a child, although that certainly was one of the reasons, and in recognition of the collective trauma that still exists in the north inner city arising out of the events that led to Terence's death 16 years ago, I was also there because, as a public representative, a Member of this House and a person who grew up in the community, I want to highlight the many questions that remain about his death. The Tánaiste will probably tell me that the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, carried out an investigation into the death more than ten years ago, and I accept that. What is the purpose of an investigation, however, when so many questions remain? I am asking again for a new inquiry, preferably a full, independent inquiry, into the death of Terence Wheelock. I will continue asking for it until the truth is established. In the absence of that, we cannot have healing in the north inner city.

I take this opportunity to extend my condolences to Terence Wheelock's family and friends, who, I know, are still grieving and still have a lot of questions they would like answered. As the Deputy said, a GSOC investigation was carried out into his death. I am not sure whether an inquest took place. I certainly will ask the Minister for Justice to reply to the Deputy about his specific request for a further inquiry.

There was an announcement by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage that there are going to be changes to the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 in order to replace rent pressure zones and the 4% limit with a review based on the consumer price index. Does the Tánaiste agree this is not good enough given the already unsustainable rents people are paying? In the rent pressure zones, we have seen 20% increases over the past four years, with people paying €2,000, €2,500 and €3,000 a month, which is completely unaffordable. Is it not time to ensure that no further rent increases are allowed? I remind the Tánaiste that we already have backdated, suspended rent reviews from the Covid period. Do we not need to institute a complete rent freeze for the foreseeable future and bring in rent controls that will set rents at affordable levels? By the way, from what I can see, the proposed amendments will do nothing for the setting of new rents on build-to-rent apartments and so on-----

The Tánaiste to reply.

-----which can be set at any level whatsoever and will almost certainly be set at the same unsustainable levels they are now.

As the Deputy knows, in the rent pressure zones, rents can only increase year on year by between zero and 4%. We are going to change that now so that prices are linked to the harmonised index of consumer prices - inflation, essentially - and that will mean rent increases, depending on inflation, of probably no more than 0.7% or just above 1%, which is where inflation is running at the moment. I think that will be welcomed by most people who are renting. One thing we need to bear in mind, and it may not be popular to say it but it is the truth, is that the vast majority of people who are landlords - I am not one of them, by the way - are not investment funds or wealthy people. One person's rent is another person's mortgage. There are many people who own houses or apartments and the rent they receive for them barely covers their mortgages. For some people, that rental income is their pension and it is the only pension they have.

Thank you, Tánaiste. I am moving on to the Regional Group.

Doing what the Deputy proposes, which is just having flat rents, would mean some people cannot pay their mortgage and some would have their pension cut.

There was much relief when in-person driver theory testing recommenced on 8 June. However, it now appears that, for many, this was a false dawn. Many young people across County Tipperary have contacted my office in frustration and anger due to unacceptable delays. Applicants who applied in February will not be offered an appointment until October. In one particular case, a young woman from Tipperary who needs to complete her test was given no fewer than seven different dates, ranging from April 2020 to July of this year. All seven appointments were cancelled and she has now been given an appointment for 23 December, which is one year and eight months after her first appointment. This is not tolerable for young motorists. Young people are missing opportunities for apprenticeships, work experience, education and agricultural work. What plans does the Government have to urgently address these delays?

As the Covid-19 restrictions are gradually eased, there have been changes to the status of driver testing services. A gradual reopening of in-person driver theory test centres commenced on 8 June. Essential driver training for essential workers who have not completed their training recommended on 10 May. Driving tests for essential workers are being prioritised. There will be a gradual reopening of driver testing for non-essential workers, which has commenced already. Forty new temporary driving testers have been hired and should begin work at the end of June. Sanction has been granted to recruit a further 40 testers. I absolutely acknowledge that there is a backlog, which is very frustrating for people who need to get on the road and need the freedom that brings, such as being able to get to work or college and do all the things they need to do. We are working to try to get through that backlog over the next couple of months.

The Tánaiste has said the economy is going to take off like a rocket. What he said about the theory test shows that the situation is a shambles. Apprenticeship schemes are also unable to function. You need two things for an apprenticeship, namely, a good employer who will give people the opportunity and colleges to provide the courses. People cannot get into the colleges because they are not functioning. I had a young man on to me this morning who, even though he is in an apprenticeship scheme for six months, has to wait until February 2022 to get his college place. That mean he cannot move on and his employer will have issues as well. It also means he cannot get a mortgage because of his rate of pay and everything else. He cannot make progress. Apprenticeships are vital to this economy. The situation was bad enough before Covid and it is ten times worse now. This delay is unacceptable because employers will not be anxious to take on apprentices, and one cannot blame them, when they cannot get them into training and there is no structure around it. We need to deal with the apprenticeship schemes. As I said, the system was bad even before Covid. We need to deal with the colleges that are not taking in apprentices. They must play their part.

I thank the Deputy. As he knows, we have a very ambitious plan in regard to apprenticeships, which involves getting up to 10,000 apprentices a year by 2025. It is being led by the Minister, Deputy Harris. We are now providing incentives and grant aid to employers to take on apprentices and that is showing some positive effects. In the context of the particular case the Deputy raised, if he want to pass on the details to me or the Minister, we will see if there is anything we can do to help.

I have a similar case, the details of which I will pass on to the Tánaiste.

NPHET modelling is based on the assumption that vaccination will reduce but not prevent transmission of Covid-19. That is borne out by data from Public Health England. The bottom line is that even if - and it is a big if - the vaccination targets are met, Covid-19 variants, and perhaps new variants of it, will still be in circulation and still being transmitted next winter. Last February and March, an expert group on the role of ventilation in reducing transmission of Covid-19 reported to the Department of Health. Nothing much has happened since then. It is a year since I met with people from a small company in Shannon, CW Applied Technology, which is looking at air sterilisation measures. It is one of many companies doing this, but the Government does not seem to be advancing the issue. Whatever about an outdoor summer, we are not going to have an outdoor winter.

Thank you, Deputy. We are over time.

I do not know whether the Tánaiste has ever been in Miltown Malbay or Tulla when the raining is coming in sideways. What is the Government going to do to plan for this?

Thankfully, on the two occasions on which I was in Miltown Malbay, the sun was splitting the stones. It is a really beautiful place to be, particularly along the beach when the sun is shining.

However, I know what Ireland is like in winter, as does the Deputy. We are all increasingly aware and cognisant of the importance of good ventilation in indoor settings. It is actually something that is specifically provided for in the return to work safely protocol and there is a requirement under the health and safety Act that employers ensure workplaces are adequately ventilated. There are many ways of doing that but I think the Deputy puts his finger on the fact that it is something on which we will have to do more work between now and the winter.

Today is an historic day for the city and county of Limerick as the 40 km Limerick greenway has opened along the old Great Southern Railways line. This is part of a broad vision and network of greenways that will link counties Kerry, Clare, Tipperary and Limerick, with Limerick city as the hub. We hope to bring the greenway back into Limerick city and be able to extend it through east Clare up to Scarriff and, in the long run, down to Cahir in Tipperary. These greenways will serve community transport in terms of people being able to get from village to village. There is a significant case for them in the context of rural regeneration and, of course, they will be biodiversity corridors as well. Will the Tánaiste and the Government support continued investment in rural sustainable infrastructure such as greenways and will he ensure that small and medium enterprises in rural areas are in a position to take advantage of the economic opportunities?

I thank the Deputy. I am a huge fan of greenways. All Members have seen the enormous success the Great Western Greenway has been in Mayo, as has the Déise greenway in Waterford. I have been on the great southern trail with Deputy Griffin and the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, on a few occasions and I was delighted to hear that it is now being opened and extended. It is a long time since I was fully across the project. I dealt with it while I was Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. Like the Deputy, I am a huge supporter of greenways. We need to make sure we get them to go ahead and that we work with landowners and so on to make sure there are no missing links between them. Of course, a wonderful greenway yet to be developed is the one in south Kerry. I look forward to seeing it being developed soon.

I agree with everything Deputy Leddin said.

The pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, has been a very effective support mechanism for thousands of people who were rendered unemployed overnight. Thankfully, many of them are now exiting the PUP support because they no longer need to avail of it. However, there are thousands in the entertainment sector who will find themselves on a very rocky road back to work. It is not a sector that can be switched on or off overnight; doing so will take a considerable period. The way it is now proposed to shape the remaining months of the PUP is very problematic for those who work in that sector. Ultimately, they will transition to what has been described as a jobseeker's payment. These people already have jobs and they are very anxious to get back to those jobs, which they love. They are prevented from doing so. I ask that the Government urgently consider the criteria attaching to the PUP to ensure those who have jobs but are prevented from returning to them can continue to have access to adequate payment to support them and their families.

I thank the Deputy. I appreciate the dilemma that exists. We did take a look at phasing out PUP on a sectoral basis but it is not as straightforward as that either. While retail may be open, many people formerly employed in the sector in the airport have not yet returned to work. While a handful of sandwich shops have re-opened, there are sandwich shops all over the city centre that are still closed because office workers are not back yet. Doing it on a sectoral basis is difficult but it is not something we are ruling out. One thing we should try to do and want to try to do is to get music, entertainment and the arts going again. I know there has been a very negative reaction to the idea of using corona passes to get things going again but I hope people will not rule that out without giving it full consideration because it might actually be the pathway or the ticket to reopening live events such as live music without social distancing for people who are fully vaccinated, immune or maybe even tested. It might actually be the way we can reopen, not just in the Delta wave but also in future waves.

In an off-the-cuff remark on Tuesday, the Tánaiste cancelled first communions and confirmations. The Chief Medical Officer, CMO, and NPHET have said they did not cancel them. This is no way to treat people. One cannot be surprised by everything. A few days before confirmations and first communions were due to happen in Ringsend, they were cancelled. That makes no sense whatsoever. These are a significant days for children and their parents. They are very expensive days and they are days for families. People can get married and celebrate that. Up to 50 people can gather in a church. People can go to the cinema. The children who were due to have their first communion or confirmation have been in class together every day for months, yet first communions and confirmations are banned in Ringsend. This has all gone too far and young people are paying the price. Will the Tánaiste see sense and allow communions and confirmations to go ahead?

I thank the Deputy. It was not an off-the-cuff remark, by the way; it was an on-the-record response to a question I was asked at a press conference. Those are the facts. What the CMO said yesterday is that NPHET did not recommend the cancellation of communions and confirmations because, in the view of NPHET, they were not supposed to be taking place anyway. We had hoped it would be possible for them to resume after 5 July but that is not the case. The advice from NPHET and the public health doctors and scientists is clear and is that people who are not vaccinated should not gather indoors. Unfortunately, that is what communions and confirmations inevitably involve, namely, people who are not vaccinated gathering indoors and, on some occasions, having family gatherings and parties thereafter and that results in clusters and the spread of Covid. That is the rationale behind the decision but I appreciate it is a big disappointment for a lot of people.

I refer to the digital Covid certificate, which went live across the EU today. Ireland is the only country that was not in compliance with the regulations. We have missed this deadline, although it was not a deadline for us. There are many who are concerned we will miss the deadline of 19 July. We are told we will be emailed our vaccine record but nobody submitted their email address when they applied for the vaccine and there is concern in that regard. Can the Tánaiste guarantee that the system will be live and operational by 19 July? In terms of the potential for an expanded role for a certificate, will antigen testing be incorporated in the system if it is used domestically, but also in terms of international travel?

The opening date, if one likes, for the digital certificate was today, 1 July. We are the only country in the EU that has not done so but the regulation does allow countries six weeks to comply. As we stated from the outset, we intend to have that in place for 19 July. That is being worked on at the moment. I understand there are some significant difficulties but we are still confident that we will have the digital Covid certificate out to most people who are entitled to one before 19 July. There will be some teething and adjustment problems and issues as we try to implement it through the airports but we are pressing ahead with it.

There has been palpable disappointment this week in response to the latest Covid announcement. The tourism and hospitality sector and young people feel particularly left behind. All Members share the frustration that is out there. We all know that Covid-19 has not been fair on anyone and we all want to be on the far side of this pandemic. The vaccine is our best way out of it. I, like so many others, have not been offered a vaccine yet and I am really encouraged by the national immunisation advisory council, NIAC, advice that the AstraZeneca and Janssen vaccines can be given to young people because the benefits outweigh the risks. I will take any vaccine I am given, as will most people my age. Can the Tánaiste give us 30-something-year-olds and the 20-somethings clarity on what an accelerated vaccine programme will look like for us? Will we be able to get vaccinated in our local pharmacy? How quickly will the roll-out ramp up?

The new guidance and advice from NIAC allows us to do two things. It allows us to speed up delivery of a second dose for people waiting for one, particularly those who had the AstraZeneca vaccine. That will be done in a matter of two to three weeks at the most. For younger people, that is, those under 40 who have not been vaccinated yet, it will speed that up as well. We are just working out the logistics and implications of that. One thing at which we are looking is making the Janssen vaccine available through pharmacies to younger people. It is available to the over-50s now. We are also looking at speeding up the online registration process because we now have a bigger number of vaccine to offer people in their 30s and, subsequently, those in their 20s. However, what I cannot do at the moment is give exact dates because we do not yet have exact volumes.

We need to talk to the pharmacists and the HSE needs to talk to its staff.

I want to raise the issue of school transport in County Carlow. Coláiste Eoin in Hacketstown is a growing school with a large rural catchment area. It will have 280 students in the next school year. During the Covid pandemic, the principal managed to get an extra bus service for the school, which picked up students living in rural areas. He has been told that the service will be discontinued in the new school year. That is unacceptable. The service was in place and the school needs it. I ask that the service be continued.

I have also recently been contacted by parents who want to renew school transport tickets for their children with Bus Éireann. If the child has a valid medical card, parents can renew the ticket online. However, when parents have visited the website to do this, they have received error messages. One lady contacted Bus Éireann in respect of the matter and was told that because of the cyberattack on the HSE, the company is asking parents to pay the price of the ticket for the first school term on the basis that they will receive a refund later. The cost for the ticket for the first school term is €175. That particular lady does not have €175. This cannot be allowed to happen. We must sort it out to enable people to visit the Bus Éireann website to apply for tickets with their child's medical card. I ask that the matter be looked into urgently.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. It is that time of year again when we are starting to run into issues in respect of school transport. I know that such issues can cause a great deal of distress for many families. The best thing I can do is to let the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, know that the Deputy raised the issue and ask her to reply directly to the Deputy by correspondence.

Yesterday, a meeting involving the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and representatives from the Mayo and Donegal MICA pyrite groups was held. It is most welcome. However, I would like to know why a representative from the Clare pyrite group was not invited and included. This is completely unacceptable, disheartening and, quite simply, not good enough. It has taken 12 years to get to this point for those affected in Mayo and Donegal. I know, as does the Tánaiste, that people in County Clare will not tolerate the continued attitude of the Government of burying its head in the sand. I ask the Tánaiste to ensure that any further discussions held on this serious matter will include a representative from the Clare pyrite group, namely, the founder and chairperson, Dr. Martina Cleary. Their voices need to be included and heard.

I am afraid that I do not know why nobody was invited from that group. I do know that MICA and pyrite have affected homes in Clare and Limerick and that it is not just an issue in Mayo and Donegal. We will have to ensure that they are part of the solution in some way. I will let the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, know that the Deputy raised the issue and ask him to come back to her on it.

Last Monday, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Rabbitte, visited the MooreHaven Centre in Tipperary town with Councillor Roger Kennedy and me. The centre provides day and residential services to 111 service users with mild to moderate intellectual disabilities. Since 2018, it has been in discussions with the HSE to enable it to provide urgent respite and residential care services. The centre is now in a position to provide residential care infrastructure but it needs the HSE to grant funding of €506,000 per annum to enable it to provide a 24-7 respite service. As the Tánaiste is aware, it is great for the development of service users to get a break from home. Access to respite care and facilities are also of huge benefit to ageing parents. MooreHaven urgently needs to be able to provide this respite service. I ask the Tanaiste to press the HSE to put the funding in place.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. I am afraid that I do not have any information on it to hand. I will certainly let the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, or the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, whichever one is appropriate, know that the issued was raise and ask her to contact the Deputy directly.

The general scheme of the criminal justice (exploitation of children in the commission of offences) Bill 2020 has been published and is expected to undergo pre-legislative scrutiny. Does the Tánasite know the timescale for this to be completed? There is real concern in my constituency that young children are increasingly being groomed to act as drug couriers by criminal elements involved in the drugs trade. The proposed legislation needs to be passed into law as soon as possible.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. I am afraid that I do not have a timeline in respect of the proposed legislation currently. It is very much part of the Department's work programme.

I call Deputy Pringle.

(Interruptions).

Has the Deputy contacted the Ceann Comhairle's office?

From today, the temporary assistance payment scheme, which helps to fund rigorous infection control measures in our nursing homes is being discontinued. Since the Government took the decision in this regard, a number of things have changed. First, the figures the Government received on Monday night, imperfect though they may be, clearly show that this pandemic is not over. Therefore, rigorous infection control measures in nursing homes are essential. Second, from today, the HSE has restricted visiting in certain nursing homes in Donegal. That clearly shows the need for these measures. Will the Tánaiste ask the Minister to look again at continuing this funding to ensure that there are control measures in our nursing homes for our most vulnerable residents?

The scheme was temporary. Like all temporary schemes, it has to come to an end. The big change that has happened in nursing homes is that the residents and staff are now almost all fully vaccinated. Thankfully, the number of cases and outbreaks has been, and continues to be, very small. However, infection control is always a good thing, particularly in nursing homes. What probably needs to happen is an engagement involving the sector, the National Treatment Purchase Fund, the Department of Health and the HSE with a view to enhancing the existing scheme and taking account of the increased costs that have arisen as a result of the need to improve infection control into the future.

With the Tánaiste's co-operation, I will ask the last three speakers to ask their questions consecutively and the Tánaiste can give one response. I ask the Deputies to be as brief as possible, because we are short of time.

My question concerns the western rail corridor. Following the publication of the report by Dr. John Bradley, the Government needs to stop prevaricating and deliver on the western rail corridor as part of the national development plan. Is it in the national development plan? Does the Government recognise that it is a key piece of infrastructure for the development of the west of Ireland?

The issue I wish to raise relates to the continuing dramatic increase in the price of building material, including the price of timber, steel and insulation material. Builders are unable to stand over quotations for anything more than a few days. While it is an issue for all those involved in construction, from big road projects down to individual house construction, it is particularly difficult for older people who are building extensions for bathrooms, including the installation of walk-in showers and so on. These people are dealing with their local councils in respect of the grant. No matter how fast councils approve grants and even when they max out on them, older people are getting hit with the impact of increased prices. What action can be taken to address this issue? Have Departmental officials met with representative of the industry to discuss dealing with the issue of dramatically increasing price of construction materials?

I want to raise an issue in respect of the programme for Government, specifically the health-led approach to drug misuse outlined on page 50. Previous Governments have paid lip service to this issue. So much so, that thousands of people would still be alive had it not been for the lip service that Governments have paid to this issue. We have to take a different approach. The current approach does not work. Criminalising people for drug use simply does not work and is completely to the person and to society as a whole. The programme for Government states that a citizens' assembly should be convened to consider the matter. That is good. However, we need to go beyond that. We need to take action to save lives. We must take a different approach to drug misuse, because the current approach does not work. It costs lives. If the Government does not change its approach, it will cost more lives.

On the western rail corridor project, the national development plan is under review and the revised version should be published in July, if not a little later. Of course, as the Deputy is aware, other reports have been produced on the issue, such as the Jasper Consulting report, which came to different conclusions.

The Government is very aware of the problems being created by the increase in the cost of building materials. A lot of is down to international commodity prices not entirely under our control. However, we are engaging with the industry on it to see what we can do.

In response to Deputy Gino Kenny, the Government has invested a lot in addiction services in recent years. They have been expanded significantly, including in my own constituency. We are trying to move ahead with the plan for the supervised injecting centre at Merchant's Quay, but we have run into difficulties on that.

I am of a similar view to the Deputy on the issue of decriminalisation. I do not believe the criminalisation model works. It leaves people with convictions and makes it harder for them to get on with their lives and to engage with services in order to get the help they need. Drug dealing and drug gangs are very different from what the Deputy is referring to. We both agree on that. As Taoiseach, I set up an expert group to consider the issue. It came to a different conclusion. However, the matter is not one on which the Government has closed its mind. Perhaps the convening of a citizens’ assembly is a better way to tease it out.

I thank the Tánaiste for his co-operation. We are going to have a break of 40 minutes now. Before that, I would like to say one thing: I did not seek an apology and I did not need an apology, notwithstanding the Tánaiste’s kind words. I was simply looking for co-operation. It is important to state that for the record.

Sitting suspended at 1.11 p.m. and resumed at 1.51 p.m.