Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Will the Taoiseach inform us what the final cost of the new national children's hospital will be? Just over €1.4 billion was the amount agreed at Cabinet but it emerged today at a joint committee that, of 900 claims in total, only a handful have been settled. It now seems inevitable that costs will overrun substantially. The committee was unable to get clarity on this point from the Department or the board. Can the Taoiseach, as Head of Government, tell us what we are looking at in terms of a project that will, it seems, deliver the most expensive hospital ever built anywhere internationally? Will he enlighten us on the date of completion? Will it be completed by December 2023 and open in the first half of 2024?

This project has been ongoing for a number of years, from conception to the present state. It has been unsatisfactory in terms of the relationship between the contractor and development board. I am not in a position to give clarity around figures. The less bandying about of figures, the better, in relation to contracts and projects of this kind. That applies to everybody, including those in government. There are hundreds of claims, as the Deputy says, and they have to be contested. I will not make a judgment as to how the claims will work out or give a top-of-the-head figure as to the cost.

This is a difficult relationship now, unfortunately, where there is claim and counterclaim, and that is problematic and not satisfactory at all from my perspective and, indeed, from the Government's perspective.

The Taoiseach's time is up.

That also impacts on the deadline and timelines.

The Taoiseach has said many times that we must use every tool in our arsenal in regard to Covid-19. I want to ask what is being done regarding all the technologies for proper air ventilation. We know that Covid-19 is spread in the air more so than on surfaces, so ventilation is critical. We need to use better disinfection systems. I have written to the Taoiseach and the Minister recently on this. Ms Orla Hegarty from UCD has been making the point for nearly a year that the future-proofing of ventilation across premises is critical in our fight. There has been much debate about how we are going to get people back indoors over the coming weeks and months in hospitality but also in offices, universities, schools, etc. This is a critical question and one that has been completely underestimated as regards its potential impact. What is the Government going to do to resource, support, influence or direct businesses, social settings and hospitality settings-----

The Deputy's time is up.

-----regarding proper use of new ventilation techniques and technologies?

I agree with the Deputy. Ms Orla Hegarty has done a lot of important work in this regard and in raising awareness levels. My Department has published reports and guidance for public sector authorities and agencies in respect of ventilation. CO2 monitors have been put in every classroom but we may need to do more. A working group met in regard to schools and recommended CO2 monitors in classrooms and then gave advice on opening windows and so on. We may have to look at that again.

What about new technologies?

We have to look at the new technologies and we will do so. As we come through this phase of Covid, we know there could be winter phase of Covid. We are very conscious of that. All the tools and technologies at our disposal need to be looked at. I take the Deputy's point.

The news that a salmon farm licence has been granted in Bantry Bay has been met with massive concern and frustration in west Cork. Locals, inshore fishers and tour operators are all worried about the negative environmental impact. The Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board based its decision on a report submitted by the company that was granted the licence. Will the Taoiseach ensure those documents are made publicly available? As he will be aware, there is a limited window for people to exercise their right to seek a judicial review. Time and again, communities in west Cork have had to raise large amounts and dedicate significant time to seeking a judicial review to right the wrong decisions made by Government. We are sick and tired of it. It is time the Government conducted a larger review on the role of this sector and its detrimental impact on local ecology and tourism. Last week, Argentina banned salmon farming altogether due to its massive environmental impact. How are we simultaneously granting new licences?

First, the Government does not get involved in the planning or appeals processes. Certainly, this has been an issue of contention and controversy for quite some time. The point regarding the publication of documents is fair. There should be full transparency regarding this project and all the submissions made in respect of the planning process, including from the company's perspective in terms of whatever documents it has submitted, so that people have full knowledge of the implications of this on the ecosystem-----

Will there be a larger review of the issue?

-----and more generally. I will inquire as to the status of the publication of those documents.

Tonight, the Dáil will vote on a proposal to freeze rents for a period of three years. The Government has proposed an amendment to delay progressing the Bill for another 12 months. The Government is adopting the Johnny Logan approach to rent increases - what's another year? For tenants, another year could mean the fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh year in a row that their rents will rise. For some, it is another year of notices to quit or evictions. In the 1960s, Fianna Fáil was the party of the Taca men. In the Celtic tiger years, it was the party of the Galway tent. Today, it is defending the corner of the landlords. Fianna Fáil went over to the dark side a long time ago and I do not think it is coming back. Of course, the Taoiseach could always prove me wrong by dropping the amendment. The Government has done a big U-turn on stamp duty to please the vulture funds. Will it do a U-turn to please renters? I am not holding my breath but I await the answer.

In fairness, the Deputy should have acknowledged that the Minister has brought in a significant proposal on the capping of rent increases in line with the harmonised index of consumer prices. This is something he was calling for as a minimum and the Minister has done it now. It is a very progressive measure. All the measures the Minister has taken in placing restrictions on evictions and so on have borne fruit. The tsunami has not happened that the Deputy said would happen a year ago. The Minister has to balance the constitutional and legal issues. He cannot knowingly act illegally. What he has done is reduce rent increases in line with inflation, which is far better than what obtained before that.

Last night, I watched a video of a tractor run organised by Friends of Wexford General Hospital to raise much-needed funds for an MRI scanner for the hospital. That was back in 2018. A total of 300 tractors took part and many more dedicated people from all walks of life have done similar fundraising. However, the MRI scanner that was promised in an undertaking given by Government never transpired, even though the required €250,000 was raised. The people of Wexford still do not have their MRI scanner and they are asking the Government when Wexford General Hospital will receive it. Its provision was supposed to be contained in the programme for Government. It was committed to when two other hospitals, in Mullingar and Kilkenny, received theirs. Will the Taoiseach enlighten the people in this regard?

I will engage with the Minister for Heath on this. Fundraising for equipment is one thing but, obviously, the key is to get the staffing in place and the capacity to deliver and do all of that. That is a key issue in terms of any equipment that is provided across the board in health. I acknowledge and pay tribute to those who have fundraised for this. Other Deputies in the constituency have raised the issue with me as well. I will pursue this to see whether we can get a resolution.

The Taoiseach may have seen Ardfinnan bridge when he was canvassing in the last election. Ardfinnan is a beautiful village in the south east of County Tipperary, located on the R665. The bridge has been closed for nearly six years. We often hear the old adage about a bridge over troubled waters but this is a bockety bridge over the tranquil waters of the River Suir. The Department is refusing to give funding for a cantilever pedestrian bridge, despite the Minister visiting it on two or three occasions. A number of years ago, the council wanted to make it a one-way system. The people on the community council, whom I salute, stood up and objected to An Bord Pleanála. Now the people are being punished by this bridge being single way and having temporary traffic lights on it for nearly six years. Will the Taoiseach ensure the Minister for Transport provides funding for this cantilever bridge? The bridge has been repaired to its full strength. It was widened 200 years ago. Why would we allow it to be narrowed now? We need funding in the region of €1 million for this stand-alone, ornate steel bridge, designed by a local company, Loughryan Engineering, to allow pedestrians to pass safely and have traffic that serves the communities in this huge area?

I recall that visit. Councillor Micheál Anglim, who has been a long-term campaigner for this, asked me to go down with Deputy Cahill. It is a lovely and very tranquil area.

There are good footballers there.

Very good footballers. I was reminded of that at the time because of what had happened on the playing pitch.

It happened on the playing pitch last year.

It happened even before that in other grades. I get the point that, economically and socially, it is a problem and it is dangerous as well from a safety perspective. That was one of the issues raised at the time by many parents of schoolchildren. I will follow through on that and see what we can do.

Tá soiléiriú á lorg agam ar an scéim atá beartaithe maidir le cúiteamh a thabhairt do dhaoine a chaith tréimhse i dtithe máithreacha agus leanaí. My question to the Taoiseach is very direct and I would love a direct answer. I want clarification on when the compensation or redress scheme will be launched for the mothers and others who spent time in mother and baby homes. I understand the consultation process, for which a private company was employed, has finished.

A report went before the Cabinet last June but we are still waiting. Older and vulnerable people still have no knowledge whatsoever of what is happening following the publication of a report last January, with all the stress that went with it.

Tá an-chuid oibre déanta ag an Aire, an Teachta O’Gorman, ar an gceist seo agus ar an ábhar seo. Tá sé ag obair le gach aon duine ó thaobh na ceiste seo agus go háirithe ó thaobh clár cúitimh do na daoine a bhí i dtithe máithreacha agus leanaí. Níor tháinig aon rud os comhair an Rialtais fós. The proposition has not come before Government yet but my understanding is that it is at a very advanced stage. I have been in touch with the Minister on this. To be fair, he is working hard and diligently on it and will be bringing proposals to us fairly shortly.

I have been contacted by so many constituents due to sit theory tests that were repeatedly cancelled and rescheduled. Worse, several constituents have contacted me after having secured a test only to be left waiting at the centre in Carlow on the day without any contact from the testers. One man told me he went to the centre on receipt of an email at the end of May, but when he arrived there was no one there and the phone was unmanned. A month later, he still had no contact. This is unacceptable. Is the Road Safety Authority. RSA, sufficiently resourced? What is being done to tackle this backlog? The Taoiseach is familiar with Carlow. It is a rural county without public transport. If drivers are certified, we are saving money and it allows people to access work opportunities. I know a man who had to turn down a job because he could not get a driver's licence. I am asking the Taoiseach to please step in and try to sort out this issue. It is a national issue, not just one affecting Carlow.

I agree with the Deputy entirely in terms of the importance of this issue. I will certainly investigate what is happening in Carlow in particular. I have been to Carlow on several occasions with the Deputy. The gradual reopening of in-person driver theory tests commenced from approximately 8 June. Essential driver training for essential workers who have not completed their training recommenced on 10 May. Forty new temporary driving testers have been hired and began work at the end of June. Sanction has been granted to recruit a further 40 testers. The RSA reopened test centres and introduced capacity to increase the number of tests from an average of 15,000 tests in normal times to 25,000 tests monthly to tackle the backlog and shorten waiting times. Capacity will gradually increase to 50,000 tests monthly, when public health guidance permits, to clear the backlog. Service providers sourced an additional 40 temporary team members to support that expected increase in capacity to 50,000 in-centre appointments. I will follow through on what is happening in Carlow if there are particular issues there. It is all hands on deck in relation to this very important issue.

The programme for Government contains a commitment under the mission of reforming and reimagining public life to establish a unit within the Department of the Taoiseach to co-ordinate social dialogue. The programme for Government states that the unit will "create new models of sectoral engagement". That task of reforming and reimagining public life is a central and key challenge for the Government. It could be taken for granted or overlooked but we have seen in other European countries that without constant nurture, democratic institutions can wither on the vine. Under the OECD Better Life Index indicators, which, by the way, are a good possible starting template for well-being indicators, civic engagement is our lowest score across the indicators. Any sectoral engagement should be task-based and participants should be encouraged to leave their agenda at the door but bring their experience to the table. I ask the Taoiseach to update the House on progress on the social dialogue unit within his Department.

First, in terms of the commitment in the programme for Government, we have expanded the social dialogue. We are working on that at the moment. Just last week we had a very substantial meeting with the Labour Employer Economic Forum. We are expanding its role, creating subgroups on aviation, housing, the shared island agenda and other workstreams. Prior to that, we restarted social dialogue with various sectoral groups. We had a very good meeting with the environmental pillar and another with the farming pillar. We also had a good meeting with the community and social pillar. We are also examining, through the social dialogue unit within my Department, other forms of engagement with citizens. The citizens' assembly is an obvious one that is now in play and has been in play for quite some time. We are examining that.

I thank the Taoiseach. The time is up.

We are examining whether the role of the National Economic and Social Council can be expanded and developed even more. That consideration is ongoing.

In the context of the Health (General Practitioner Service and Alteration of Criteria for Eligibility) Act 2020, what is the status of the proposal to extend access to medical cards and make them available to all those who are terminally ill and have a prognosis of up to 24 months? This is an important issue for many in my constituency who have been given a terminal prognosis. I am concerned about the impact of any delay in implementing this extension as I am aware of people who are terminally ill but have been turned down for a medical card as they do not fit the current criteria. Will the Minister advise the HSE to provide medical cards on a discretionary basis in the interim?

I thank the Deputy for raising the very important issue of extending the access to medical cards for the terminally ill. On 9 February, the Cabinet approved an interim measure which would see an extension to the current end-of-life medical card criteria whereby people who have been certified by their treating consultant as having a prognosis of up to 24 months will be awarded a medical card. That is an extension from the previous 12-month criteria. The measure is being introduced on an administrative basis which will enable officials in the Department of Health to continue their work programme to examine the legislative options to underpin the expansion of medical cards to terminally ill patients, as recommended by the HSE's clinical advisory group and endorsed by the Government last November. In essence, the Government wants to do this. If the Deputy has particular cases, maybe he can forward them to us to illustrate what is happening on the ground. In my view, there has to be a flexible discretionary approach to this and that is what should happen.

I refer the serious deficiency in child and adult mental health service in community healthcare organisation 7, which covers Dublin South-West and North Kildare. It has resulted in particular cases being referred to the courts when no other institutional care was available. Such cases ending up in the courts is not of any therapeutic benefit, medical or otherwise. A similar situation pertains with regard to education places for children with an acute level of disorder. The mother of one such child stated after a recent court case that her child is locked out of the system. I have already brought this to the attention of the various authorities. Will the Taoiseach use his considerable influence to ensure these issues are addressed in the shortest possible time?

I agree wholeheartedly with the Deputy that these issues should not be resolved in courts, ideally. That is why we have National Educational Welfare Board that I established when I was Minister for Education and Science in the late 1990s. That is why we should have very proactive programmes to intervene early in the life cycle of a child to deal with issues that children and young people have and to do so in the most appropriate setting and in a timely way. It is a failure when it ends up in court.

In 2018, the Dáil dealt with two very significant issues. One of them related to the calls for a public inquiry into the death of Shane O'Farrell. It is the tenth anniversary of the death of this young man and two and a half years into the promised scoping exercise being carried out by a judge. At the time, the Dáil voted overwhelmingly to support a public inquiry. In 2017, I agreed with the Taoiseach's statement that a public inquiry was needed. I further agreed with his statement that the case "reveals shocking malpractice and dysfunction in the criminal justice system at all levels". We have a GSOC report but we still have not received the scoping exercise report. Will the Taoiseach now put in place the public inquiry he supported back in 2018 and that this House has been calling for continually?

We were informed by Garda Commissioner Harris in 2018-----

You are over time, Deputy. Thank you.

-----of the suspension of John Barrett. Where does that stand?

Deputies may only ask one question on one topic.

First, I appreciate that Deputy McGuinness his a long-standing advocate for the O'Farrell family in respect of calling for a public inquiry. The Dáil has passed a resolution in that respect. The scoping inquiry was established. In my view, it makes some sense to get the outcome of that scoping inquiry. I accept that it has gone on for a long time. Covid-19 has had an impact on that. However, we need to see that scoping inquiry brought to a conclusion. It will inform the nature of subsequent inquiries then for the Dáil and for Government.

I do not have information in respect of the Deputy's second question.

We can only deal with one question.

I ask the Taoiseach if the Government would consider introducing a new weapons amnesty. The Taoiseach will recall that he was a member of a Cabinet that introduced an amnesty in 2006. That took hundreds of lethal weapons off the streets at the time - everything from shotguns to knives to all sorts of devices. I am very concerned at the level of knife crime in this city and throughout the country, currently. I feel that an amnesty would take many of those weapons off the streets but also, more importantly, it would create an awareness and discussion of the issue. It would lead to people, and young people in particular, being better educated on the dangers of carrying knives.

In the 15 years since the last amnesty, which was very progressive at the time, many more weapons, and firearms in particular, have come into the country. The introduction of an amnesty may be an opportunity to take them off the streets. Every weapon that we can take off the streets and put out of use is good work.

First, I think that is a very constructive proposition by the Deputy. I do recall the amnesty 15 years ago. I will engage with the Minister for Justice in respect of the Deputy's proposal. Obviously, the Minister for Justice will take advice from the Garda Commissioner.

There is a real concern in relation to the rise of knife crime in our communities at the moment, particularly in certain communities. That has to be a cause for concern. We do need to see what are the more innovative and creative ways of dealing with that. One of them could be the amnesty.

I wish to establish the Government's position in relation to rapid antigen testing. It is abundantly clear, from information that was presented to the Join Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications, that there is a role for antigen testing to play in the reopening of our economy and society and in keeping it open. I want to establish what the Government's position is in relation to rapid antigen testing.

I have proposed to the Taoiseach and his office a pilot reopening of a nightclub in Ennis. I would like the Taoiseach or his officials to make contact with me in relation to that matter.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. The Government is supportive of the deployment of antigen testing as an additional tool to existing tools to deal with Covid-19. Yesterday, the Government approved formally the establishment of a group chaired by Professor Mary Horgan in respect of giving guidance and advice to different sectors within the Government, different Departments and agencies, and different sectors in society, as to the best way to deploy and roll out antigen testing. It is already in place in meat plants, for example. It is also being used in some healthcare settings by the HSE. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science has developed a pilot programme in respect of third level education in anticipation of the autumn academic period. That is the Government's position right now.

It is an additional tool. It is not a replacement of any existing tool. It is part of a wide suite of measures that can be used.

I ask the Taoiseach to engage with the Department of Education, the Minister for Education and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, as the issues and dire circumstances experienced by the only Educate Together school in my constituency in Clare require urgent and interdepartmental attention.

In the programme for Government there is a commitment to ensuring plurality and delivering choice in education. The Educate Together school is one of two multidenominational schools in Ennis, but it has been consistently and critically under-resourced. The staff have been educating in temporary structures since the school opened in 1998. The school is dealing with many issues, including rodent infestation, ventilation, dampness, insulation and many other health and safety issues. The school does not even have a single interactive white board. A large proportion of the children at the school have complex additional needs, which means that the Government has even more of a responsibility under the EPSEN Act 2004, the UNCRPD as well as the programme for Government.

Obviously, there is clearly a history in terms of the development of that school in respect of the need for permanent accommodation. I believe the Deputy said it has been in temporary accommodation since 1998. There is clearly a narrative there in terms of alternatives that they were looking for that maybe did not materialise. I will look at it with a view to getting the situation resolved.

Today is the last day you can sign on for PUP. Despite the Government's promises that there would be no cliff for people on income supports such as the PUP, that cliff is now being created. For example, if you are a musician or a performer, and you benefit from the live performance support scheme, LPSS, over the next two months, you cannot go back on PUP, even though you may only get one bit of work. That is a cliff for all of those people.

There is also a cliff for anybody who goes down to the €203 payment rate, regardless of the fact that they want to return to their industry, whether it is travel, tourism, taxi driving, music or live performance. They are now going to be told that they have to come off the PUP and apply for jobseeker's allowance, when in fact they want to return to their own industries. That is a grossly unfair punishment and represents a cliff for people who have been affected by pandemic measures.

First, I would say to the Deputy that we need balance and perspective in this debate.

(Interruptions).

He has been on and on about it, but he never gives the basic facts of how extensive the support has been - and rightly so as that support is needed. To date, the expenditure on PUP is over €8.2 billion. Just under 900,000 people have benefited from the scheme. That demonstrates the Government's clear commitment to support workers and businesses that have been severely affected by Covid-19. I do not think he should present the Government's position as being one of always trying to hit workers or undermine them when the opposite is the case.

(Interruptions).

The opposite is the case. A variety of supports, in addition to PUP, has been given to a range of sectors, but he will never acknowledge that because it is beyond his-----

(Interruptions).

In response to the crisis in the aviation sector generally, and Shannon Airport in particular, many of the Ministers, and indeed backbenchers, said that the digital green pass would be the panacea. I have the regulation introducing it. It came into effect on 1 July. The State does not have six weeks to begin implementing it; it has six weeks to implement it completely. Crucially, as of 1 July, the State must issue certificates to people who have been vaccinated, who have recovered or who have been tested, not in the agreed format, but so that they can travel. Instead, the Ministers have increased the ban on non-essential foreign travel in contravention of that. Does the Government adhere to the rule of law and the belief in the supremacy of EU law?

I do not quite get the question. We are not banning anything.

He signed a statutory instrument on 4 July-----

Deputy McNamara, resume your seat, please.

The Government is signing on-----

Does the Taoiseach know what he is doing?

The Government is signing on with the European digital Covid certificate framework in terms of travel. People can travel now, by the way.

The Minister for Health-----

People are----

Deputy McNamara, you are out of order.

-----travelling as we speak.

But he is telling fibs-----

Deputy, you are out of order.

The Minister for Health-----

Deputy, resume your seat.

-----signed a regulation making it unlawful to travel-----

Deputy, resume your seat. You are holding up proceedings. Please.

-----for non-essential reasons until 19 July, in contravention of this.

The Deputy knows we are going to be ready for 19 July. He knows that.

But it is not 19 July. This came into force on 1 July.

We are going to follow through on it.

There are three Deputies who have yet to contribute. If they will ask their questions in 30 seconds, we will go to the Taoiseach for a collective response. Deputy Bríd Smith.

My question concerns the importance of social dialogue. I want to say that it is ironic that the State continues to treat many groups of workers appallingly. One key group is that of school secretaries, who do a myriad of jobs and who, during Covid, were heroic in keeping the schools open and being on the front line. Yet, questions remain unanswered about how social dialogue is treating them.

Will school secretaries have to sign on for social welfare once again this summer? Why is there a delay in the WRC talks on this issue when strike action that brought about progress? Will the Taoiseach guarantee that school secretaries will be placed on Civil Service scales in September?

I will try to cut to the chase. At Keelbeg, Union Hall, the Department funded the construction of a new pier in 1994 and 1995 under the then fishery harbour development programme. The pier has served the fishing community well, and landing values rated the pier above Howth and Rossaveal. The pier reached capacity in recent years but it has not been possible to advance plans for future growth in the way it has been for other harbours. A sum of €210,000 is needed for a feasibility study. The Taoiseach was in the area recently. From what I hear, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, is going down in late July. Is it possible that his Department could make the funding available and that the Minister could make an announcement in this regard in Union Hall when he visits?

I wish to raise the temporary assistance payment, TAP, scheme for nursing homes, which ceased on 30 June. The costs incurred by nursing homes have increased substantially over the past 18 months because of Covid-19. Those costs remain in place. I ask that the Government considers seriously the extension of the scheme. The UK has continued to extend additional support to all its nursing homes.

On the school secretaries, the matter has been subject to discussion and negotiation. The Government, including the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, wants to resolve this. The matter has been subject to a process. We want to resolve it. It is important that it be resolved.

On Deputy Michael Collins's points, I will talk to the Minister, Deputy McConalogue. There is a broader programme and the Government has allocated substantial funding for pier renewal and development and will make further allocations in that respect.

On Deputy Colm Burke's question, because the vaccination programme has been so successful, the types of supports that are available under the TAP scheme are not required as much as they were. I have to make a general point on this. When the summer economic statement is produced by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, in a week or two, Members will get a sense of where we want to be fiscally over the next five years. The deficit has been extraordinary over the past two years. There will come a time when we have to transition to investment as opposed to subsidising every sector continually. That is on the condition that we emerge from Covid-19. A real balance has to be struck and we need to invest in new sectors, jobs and activities. There will come a period when we will have to transition from our current position to a newer one.