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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 15 Jul 2021

Vol. 1010 No. 6

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Defective Building Materials

I wish to state at the outset, no disrespect to the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, that it is deeply disappointing, given the seriousness of the issue that I am raising, that neither the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage nor the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, is available for this discussion. I am aware that the Land Development Agency legislation is currently before the Seanad, but both the Minister and the Minister of State are not required for that. I would like to convey my dissatisfaction at the absence of a line Minister.

Across the State, thousands of homeowners - apartment, duplex and house owners - are living in defective properties. The properties were built during the Celtic tiger, and through no fault of the purchasers of the properties, they currently have significant fire safety and other structural defects. The programme for Government contained a clear commitment to examine the issue of defective housing in the first 12 months of Government, "having regard to the recommendations of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing report, 'Safe as Houses'", which was published in 2018.

The Minister of Housing, Local Government and Heritage took action on that commitment.

He announced a working group on defective buildings in September. It has been meeting since March but I have significant concerns about what we are hearing from it and its lack of progress to date. Before I detail those concerns, it is important to put on record what the unanimously endorsed report Safe as Houses?, produced by the Oireachtas housing committee, states about this matter, namely, "Government should establish a redress scheme to assist home owners with latent defects". It also states the mission statement of the scheme should be, "Ordinary owners who purchased in good faith should not be liable for the costs of remediation caused by the incompetence, negligence or deliberate non-compliance of others". The recommendations state such a redress scheme could be funded through an industry levy, Exchequer contributions, tax reliefs and long-term no-interest loans, for example.

The Minister has said that he wants to deal with this issue head-on. He has direct experience of it in his constituency, as do many others in theirs, particularly because of pyrite but also because of inadequate fire safety and water ingress in buildings. The problem, however, is that the year has come and gone and the working group has not completed its work. In fact, it has not even been able to agree terms of reference. There is genuine concern among representatives of homeowners on the group to the effect that its work is being interfered with by departmental officials. The working group is meant to be independent. It is chaired by the former chief executive of Donegal County Council and has representatives from various bodies, in addition to home and apartment owners, yet it has not yet formally agreed its terms of reference. On the front page of the Irish Examiner on the Saturday before last, a significant report was published by Mick Clifford, who has been tracking this issue. According to the article, homeowners are saying departmental officials are deliberately narrowing the scope of the terms of reference in such a way as to prevent effective redress for homeowners but also in a way that runs contrary to the spirit of the Safe as Houses? report.

I would have liked to have asked the Minister four questions. In saying that, I mean no disrespect to the Minister of State who is present. The first of my questions is whether the Minister can tell us why the working group is not going to meet the clear programme for Government commitment to report within a year? Second, is he concerned about the views of homeowners to the effect that departmental officials are inappropriately interfering with the independence of the group? Third, can he tell us when the group will conclude and make its recommendations to the Government? Fourth, crucially, can he guarantee us that there will be a redress scheme in budget 2022, announced in October, to ensure 100% redress for all those apartment, house and duplex owners currently living in buildings built during the Celtic tiger era with fire safety and structural defects, caused not only by shoddy workmanship and bad oversight by developers and builders but also by a weak regulatory regime put in place by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. As he is aware, the programme for Government sets out several commitments in respect of the important policy area of building defects and provides for an examination of defects in housing, having regard to the recommendations in the Joint Committee on Housing's Safe as Houses? report. In that context, a working group to examine defects in housing was established. The Minister appointed Mr. Seamus Neely, former chief executive of Donegal County Council, as chair to the independent working group. The chair will oversee the effective implementation of the group's terms of reference, which have recently been adopted.

The membership of the working group includes representatives with relevant expertise and experience from Engineers Ireland, the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland, the Society of Chartered Surveyors of Ireland, the public sector, the local authority sector, the legal sector, the Department of Finance, the Construction Defects Alliance, and the Apartment Owners Network. The group's terms of reference, as set out in a response to a parliamentary question, include:

1. Examine defects in housing having regard to the recommendations in Item 4 "Addressing the legacy of bad building and poor regulation" in Chapter 4 of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government report - 'Safe as Houses? A Report on Building Standards, Building Controls and Consumer Protection'.

2. Establish the nature of significant, wide-spread fire safety, structural safety and water ingress defects in purpose built apartment buildings, including duplexes, constructed between 1991 - 2013 in Ireland through consultation with affected homeowners, homeowner representative organisations, owners' management companies, relevant managing agents, public representatives, local authorities, product manufacturers, building professionals, industry stakeholders, insurance providers, mortgage providers and other relevant parties. Including such matters as:

- Identification and description of defect,

- Nature of defect — design, product, workmanship,

- Non-compliance with building regulations or actual damage,

- Severity/risk to life or serviceability of dwelling,

- Period of construction affected,

- Type of dwelling affected,

- Location of dwellings affected.

3. Establish the scale of the issue - estimate number of dwellings affected by the defects identified including those already remediated.

4. Consider a methodology for the categorisation of defects and the prioritisation of remedial action.

- In the case of defects with fire safety implications, consider how the framework for enhancing fire safety in dwellings can be applied to mitigate the risks arising from fire safety defects pending the remediation of defects and the Code of Practice for Fire Safety Assessment of Premises and Buildings, which is currently being developed by National Directorate of Fire and Emergency Management.

5. Suggest mechanisms for resolving defects, in the context of the legal rights, duties and obligations of developers, builders, building professionals, insurers, mortgage providers, building control authorities, fire authorities, owners' management companies, owner occupiers, renters and landlords, including:

- Technical options for the remediation of dwellings,

- Efficient means of carrying out work,

- individual dwellings or whole building approach,

- routine maintenance/refurbishment or remediation,

- Structures or delivery channels needed to facilitate resolution - advice and support.

6. Evaluate the potential cost of technical remediation options.

7. Pursue options on possible financial solutions to effect a resolution, in line with the Programme for Government commitment to identify options for those impacted by defects to access low-cost, long-term finance.

8. To report to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on the Examination of Defects in Housing.

As the Ceann Comhairle will hear very often during the Topical Issue Debate, this is wholly inadequate. Again, I do not in any way blame the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, but for the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, or the Minister of State with responsibility for housing, Deputy Noonan, not to be here to answer questions on this issue is not only disrespectful to members of the Opposition but also to the thousands of homeowners who will sleep tonight in defective homes. This is the last opportunity Deputies will have to ask these questions. The time allowed for producing the report, according to the programme for Government, was 12 months. The deadline has come and gone. There is genuine concern that the programme for Government commitment to have in place some form of redress for the homeowners may not now be honoured.

I urge the Minister of State to relay the four questions I have put today to the Minister. I appreciate that she will not be in a position to answer them. She should urge the Minister to respond to me formally in writing outlining the answers. First, why has the programme for Government commitment to examine this issue within 12 months not been met? Second, when will the report of the working group on defective homes be completed? Third, will the Minister intervene to prevent interference from his officials that is undermining the independence of the working group? Fourth, will he give us a cast-iron commitment that there will be in budget 2022, announced in October, a scheme that will provide genuine redress for the homeowners affected by Celtic tiger defects?

Thousands of people, from Donegal, Mayo, Sligo and elsewhere, rightly marched on the streets in Dublin recently, demanding 100% redress for those affected by defective blocks. They have my full support. The same principle must apply to all homeowners who bought homes during the Celtic tiger era in good faith but who now have defects in building standards and materials. They must get redress. The Minister must answer the questions before we break for the recess.

The programme for Government sets out several commitments in respect of the important policy area of building defects and provides for an examination of defects in housing, having regard to the recommendations in the joint committee's Safe as Houses? report. The plenary working group has been meeting monthly since March 2021. In addition, there have been subgroup meetings.

With regard to the working group's deliberations, the group will seek to engage with a range of interested parties, including homeowners, public representatives, local authorities, product manufacturers, building professionals and industry stakeholders, among others, to examine the issues concerning defects in housing and report to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on the matter.

Arrangements on the initial round of consultations are being put in place by the working group. The Minister is satisfied that the group is working effectively and efficiently on this complex matter and he looks forward to a report in due course following completion of the group's deliberation. Once the report is received, the Minister will give full consideration to its contents. Any further speculation or discussion on the output of the working of the group is premature at this stage.

Employment Schemes

We are back to facing a significant crisis of unemployment continuing into next year. The Government’s response is to roll out the old hits and the same old strategies. I am expecting the slogan, "Welfare cheats cheat us all", to be brought out and the individualisation of the problem of unemployment. An important part of that is the work placement experience programme. This is a new free labour scheme for bosses on which workers will get less than the pandemic unemployment payment and are expected to live below the poverty line while working. It is JobBridge 2.0 and I am confident that it will be widely known as such.

Workers on the scheme will get an extra €3.43 an hour for working 30 hours a week for six months without even a guaranteed job at the end of it. Employers will be able to employ up to ten workers on the scheme at the same time without having to pay a single penny for them. This actively discourages the creation of jobs. It is JobBridge all over again, except participants will receive €100 extra instead of €50 extra per week, work 30 hours instead of 40 hours a week and spend six months instead of nine months on the scheme. In every other respect, it is JobBridge all over again.

We need to go back and look at the record and experience of JobBridge. I was the organiser of a campaign known as ScamBridge which did exposés of the kind of gross exploitation that was happening with JobBridge. Some of the examples were renowned. We had people were being trained as sandwich artists working for nine months. We had multiple delicatessen assistants working for free for nine months. We had a national chain of garages which attempted to take on almost 40 JobBridge interns at the same time, saving itself €500,000 in wages.

The results of JobBridge were strikingly negative. The Government will argue that one in five of the people who did a JobBridge internship ended up working for the employer with which he or she did JobBridge. What it does not say, however, is that just over one in five employers who used JobBridge said that if JobBridge had not existed, they would have actually just employed somebody. We had real job displacement taking place. There was depression of wages because employers could ask why they would pay a person more wages if they could get somebody to work literally for free. There was a massaging of the unemployment figures because anyone on JobBridge or the work placement experience programme will not be counted as being on the live register. There was also the use of JobBridge to intimidate people who were unemployed.

When JobBridge came to an end, the scheme was widely discredited and hated. An internal audit came out and the Government commissioned a report from Indecon. It received a number of reports from the company but at the end of the scheme, the Government asked Indecon for a report on what it could do to make the scheme better and avoid the kind of deadweight that existed in it. Indecon gave the Government a report in which it stated that if the Government was to do another scheme, it would need to take on board the report's ten recommendations. Five or six years later, the Government has taken on board three of these recommendations and ignored the other seven.

One of the crucial recommendations was that employers should have to pay and should not be able to access free labour. The Government has simply ignored this. I do not know why the Government bothers commissioning these reports.

The new work placement experience programme is a key measure in our economic recovery plan and in the Government’s new employment services strategy, Pathways to Work. Launched on Monday, the programme provides tangible evidence of the Government's strong commitment to providing quality work experience and training opportunities for jobseekers, in particular, those whose jobs were permanently lost due to the pandemic.

The Government is putting in place a wide range of measures to support people whose jobs will not return after Covid-19 to help them find new jobs in new sectors of the economy. This work placement experience programme is such one such measure.

Apprenticeships and work placement programmes are proven and recognised internationally to be very effective in providing an opportunity for unemployed people to get on-the-job experience, improve their employment prospects and to get new jobs. Such approaches are supported by the EU under its recommendation on post-Covid labour market recovery and its effective active support to employment, EASE, and by our labour market advisory council. These programmes give relevant on-the-job experience and the confidence to find future employment.

The work placement experience programme is an entirely new scheme and is much different from schemes which went before it. The focus of this programme is on quality placements, accredited training and development and a higher payment rate than previous schemes, at €10.20 per hour for 30 hours work per week. Importantly, participation in the scheme will be completely voluntary. The payment rate of €306 per week is equivalent to open labour market rates and will provide six months' work experience with in-built training opportunities to 10,000 people. Training opportunities will comprise 60 hours per placement and 20 of those hours will be accredited. Persons who have been unemployed for six months, including time spent on the pandemic unemployment payment, will be eligible to participate in this programme.

The personal weekly rate will make the offering very attractive for young people, for whom some 4,000 places have been ring-fenced. Many young people whose employment has been especially adversely affected by Covid-19 will see this new programme as an excellent opportunity to improve their skills, get on-the-job experience and give them the confidence to find new employment opportunities.

Stringent safeguards are being introduced with this programme to guard against any abuses. Each participant will have a case officer assigned to him or her. There will monthly compliance checks and two review visits during the course of each placement. All roles will be quality-checked in advance to ensure there is a training and development aspect to the role. The work placement experience programme is a very positive initiative and I encourage jobseekers and businesses to engage with it.

I thank the Minister for her answer, which is kind of funny. The funny bit is the claim that it is an entirely new scheme. It is as if the Government knows that the old JobBridge scheme was so widely hated and discredited that it is practically telling us not to worry because it is not JobBridge. If the Government knows how hated and rotten that scheme was, why did it not take on board the consultants' recommendations? Why did it ignore the vast majority of the recommendations made in the report it commissioned?

The Minister of State referred to the amount of training participants will receive. Twenty hours will be accredited for sector-specific training. This means that the person has to work for 780 hours, of which 20 hours will be accredited training. This does not fill me with any hope.

In the Pathways to Work document, there is a clear reference to increased outsourcing of so-called case workers. This will mean a greater involvement of companies such as Seetec, Turas Nua and other companies that are currently involved in JobPath. This is a dangerous road to go down from the point of view of the public sector and jobseekers.

There is an alternative to these kinds of free labour schemes that displace existing jobs and undermine wages and conditions for all. The alternative is to invest in real educational apprenticeship schemes where people end up with a qualification at the end of them. Instead of being able to put on a CV that they worked for free for six months, they would then receive a qualification that they could take with them. Most important is actually creating jobs.

People will be paid an extra €3.50 per hour to go work for free for a private employer or, as happened with JobBridge, a public sector employer. Why do we not actually create some of the thousands of quality green, low-carbon jobs people need in bog rewetting, afforestation, home retrofitting, care, healthcare, nursing and education?

This strategy aims to get people back to work as the economy and the labour market recover from Covid-19. Pathways to Work 2021-2025 is a strategy that sets out 83 whole-of-government commitments aimed at reducing unemployment to or below pre-pandemic 2019 levels.

A key commitment under the strategy is the new work placement experience programme. This active labour market programme provides quality training and work experience opportunities for jobseekers out of work for six months or more to learn new skills in the workplace and to help them find new jobs. I have already outlined - I will do so again - that this work placement experience programme is different from earlier versions. It is positive that we can always strive to improve schemes and programmes. These will be quality placements involving accredited training and development and a higher payment rate than previous schemes of €10.20 per hour for 30 hours per week. Importantly, participation in the scheme will be completely voluntary and that point is very important. Nobody has to participate in this scheme. If you do not want to participate and decide not to do so, there will be no impact on your social welfare payments. I believe, however, that the programme will prove very attractive to many people. The payment rate of €306 per week is equivalent to open labour market rates. It equates to €10.20 per hour. The programme will provide six months' work experience with in-built training opportunities for 10,000 people. The training opportunities comprise 60 hours per placement, of which 20 hours will be accredited. Of course, there need to be appropriate safeguards such as stringent measures in place to include advance checks on placements, confirmation of training plans, monthly compliance checks and case officer engagement with the host and with the jobseeker over the six-month period. It is really important to say that apprenticeship programmes are proven internationally to be effective at helping people to get their foot in the door, to get on-the-job experience, to develop skill sets and, ultimately, to improve their chances of securing employment.

Disability Services

Our third matter is in the name of Deputy Verona Murphy, who wishes to discuss the three-year wait time for disability dental services in County Wexford alongside many difficulties family carers experience in securing essential medical appointments.

I will read into the record two representations made to me.

Dear Verona,

You will be aware from previous correspondence that I am a full time family carer to my sons Evan (21), who is non verbal and has diagnosis [of] ASD, ID, ADHD, Keracatonus and complex medical needs, and Daniel (17), who has a diagnosis of ASD.

Like so many family carers across Wexford and the entire country, Covid and the necessary restrictions imposed during lockdowns were...[a] challenging time for families like mine. The challenge was no greater than when adult disability day services and special [needs] schools closed and the small amount of home support we had came to a sudden halt and our doors were closed behind us leaving us caring alone often with loved ones who did not have the capacity to understand Covid and suffered greatly from the absence of their much needed routines. Family Carers played a vital role in protecting our most vulnerable citizens and in suppressing the virus by caring for our loved ones in their own homes while keeping them safe and well at enormous personal sacrifice as there was no end to our shifts, there were no days off and for many of us there was rarely a night's sleep....

I am writing to you to bring to your attention the many difficulties I am currently experiencing in securing essential medical appointments for my son Evan. Evan has multiple profound disability and the pandemic and particularly the changes it brought to his life had a profound impact on him in terms of consistent disruptive sleep, serious hypertension and an increased obsession with food. In consultation with Psychiatry, Primary Care, HSE Disability Services and Wexford General Hospital, Evan was referred for urgent review to a Dublin Hospital for assessment of a possible additional diagnosis. His symptoms are persistent and I am therefore anxious for him to be assessed as a matter of urgency as [that] is also the medical advice. Following the Cyber attack experienced by the HSE, I was unable to make any contact with the hospital department to which Evan was referred. Having left multiple voice messages detailing my concern, my calls were not returned...

Evan also has a degenerative eye condition which has seriously impaired his vision and in the absence of care could result with further loss of vision. The medical advice is that Evan's vision is to be reviewed every six months to monitor any changes to his condition and as Evan is non verbal he is unable to tell us if he experiences further sight loss making it imperative that he is reviewed on a six monthly basis... Evan received his vaccine. As soon as he was vaccinated I requested an appointment for him. The appointment was offered for the week in which the cyber attack took place and I then received a phone call to say that it had been cancelled... I have attempted to contact the Dept... the voicemail box was full and no longer recording messages. There is no available email address in which to contact the office so I called the hospital switch where I was put through to an alternative extension and advised that the Secretary responsible for Evan's appointments was on leave and there was no information with regard to when she might return and no solutions offered as to how I might resolve the issue in the interim [to] provide Evan with the care he needs. ... it is not acceptable in my view to compromise the health and well being of our most vulnerable citizens by making it next to impossible to communicate with hospital outpatient departments...

I will move on to my next representation:

Peter is non verbal and has a number of complex medical issues. He attends St. Vincents Hospital for regular check ups. Peter presented at the Primary Health Care Centre in Grogans Road Wexford as an emergency with...[his mother] last week as he was experiencing difficulty with an abscess on his gums. It was determined by the dentist on the day that Peter was in need of an extraction and further treatment but his mother was informed they would have a 3 year wait...

Peter had previously visited the dental clinic in Grogans Road a number of years ago...[with] his mother [and he] was told he would be in receipt of a follow up treatment appointment. This appointment never came. To the best of my memory this visit was perhaps 3 or 4 years ago but she could not recall the exact date.

The issue is as the Ceann Comhairle put it to the Minister.

I thank Deputy Murphy for her Topical Issue matter. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, has asked me to take it as she could not be here herself and I am glad to do so. The matter Deputy Murphy has submitted refers in particular to addressing the three-year wait time for disability dental services across County Wexford. She has raised specific cases in her contribution. I will relay those directly to the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, as well as the experience Deputy Murphy has had.

I will update the Deputy on the overall question of wait times for dental services and other difficulties that family carers are experiencing in securing essential medical appointments for people with a disability in County Wexford. Dental services for children up to 16 years of age and persons of all ages with special needs, including patients with a disability, are provided by the public dental service of the HSE through its dental clinics. Emergency care is also available daily. Previous surveys and research in Ireland have shown that dental care for many people with a disability can be provided in primary care and community settings by a dental workforce with the relevant skills and competencies. There are waiting lists for those for whom provision of care requires the use of either sedation or dental general anaesthesia. This treatment requires special facilities and staff with specific expertise. Furthermore, treatment under general anaesthesia requires hospitalisation. Treatment in hospital requires a referral from a primary care dentist and the HSE dental service and acute hospitals collaborate in this regard.

In line with other services, dental treatment, including treatment under general anaesthetic, has been curtailed during the pandemic and when provided has been at a reduced capacity. There is some capacity for dental surgery at Wexford General Hospital on Friday mornings. This is used mostly for paediatric dental extractions but, when possible, can be utilised for disability services clients. The HSE anticipates that the filling of vacancies - one full-time in special needs and one part-time in the public dental services in Wexford - and the gradual resumption of services phased down during Covid-19 will help to reduce waiting lists during 2021. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, has been informed by the HSE that most community health services such as disability services are operating as normal. The HSE's advice for families is to attend any appointments scheduled with disability services.

If there is any change to a scheduled appointment, local HSE services will contact families directly. Families can see the latest position on the HSE website as well.

The Minister of State stresses the importance of mainstreaming. People with disabilities, like all of us, just want to live normal lives, in normal places, as much as possible. There is an obligation on all of us to ensure that the needs of people with disabilities are understood and vindicated in every policy. People with disabilities should have the same access to healthcare as everybody else in society. Their needs should be factored in as we design and deliver our health services to provide the best outcomes for all the people of this country.

Smile agus Sláinte, the national oral health policy published in 2019, provides a new framework for the delivery of oral health services. The ethos of the policy is to maximise the services available in primary oral healthcare settings, with care provided by local family dentists and their teams. This means that children, adults and vulnerable people, including people with a disability, will be able to access oral healthcare in the local dental practice of the individual's choosing. To support the mainstreaming ethos, additional support, technology and time required to treat more vulnerable patients will be provided by the salaried service of the HSE. The HSE will also have a role in assessing the oral health status and needs of vulnerable people, particularly those in residential care.

I mean no disrespect to the Minister, whom I thank for coming to the Chamber to respond to the matter I have raised, but we all have to work towards something that is better. Nothing he said fills me with hope and it most certainly will not fill with hope those I am representing. It is unacceptable for someone with complex medical needs, who is non-verbal and has been taken in on an emergency appointment basis, to be told the waiting time is three years.

Nothing is improving in this regard. I appreciate everything the Minister had to say but it has been said for a long time and nothing is improving. The people I am representing with this matter are only two, but I know of about 42 others I could mention for the record. I am becoming very disillusioned because we are leaving vulnerable adults and vulnerable young children, with complicated medical needs, at the end of the queue just because they are in the minority and marginalised.

I appreciate that the Minister of State is doing her best - I know she is because we communicate regularly - but we have to start to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. If I were to take a non-verbal child into an emergency appointment such as this and walk out with the only answer being that we should wait for a further three years, I do not know how I would mentally cope with that. I do not know how the carers and parents cope with that, seeing their child in pain, unable to express it, and just seeming to get the same answers all the time. That is primarily why I raised this matter. I am not trying to harangue any Minister or to blame anybody, but something is wrong and the system is not working. We all need to work hard together to change this. All I have seen in the 17 months I have been a Deputy are longer and longer waiting lists. No matter what we do, it is not getting any better.

I will relay to the Minister of State, who is working to address this and make genuine progress, the Deputy's representations and the points she has made. Nationally, the public dental health service staff of the HSE comprise 260 dentists, 60 dental hygienists and 510 dental nurses and dental surgery assistants. Over the course of the pandemic, the number of available staff has reduced by 23% on an annualised basis due to staff redeployment for Covid-19-related work such as testing and tracing and vaccination, and that has had an impact.

As for Wexford, there are currently vacant posts in dental services. As I mentioned, the one whole-time equivalent special needs surgeon post was sent to the national recruitment service in February and it has advertised the post to be filled. The same is true of the part-time dental surgeon post, for which a recruitment campaign commenced last month. It is anticipated that when those posts have been filled, it will have an impact on addressing the waiting lists there for dental services. In Wexford, 150 persons, that is, 65 adults and 85 children, with special needs require dental treatment under general anaesthesia. Waiting times, as the Deputy pointed out, can range from six to 36 months, with a small number in excess of 36 months, which is obviously much too long and not acceptable.

The issue is recognised. The two posts are being pursued with a view to having them filled. Undoubtedly, it has to be a priority because, as the Deputy outlined, it is not acceptable for all the families and children. I will convey the Deputy's points to the Minister of State for a further follow-up.

Fishing Communities

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter for discussion. It is important to the people of Cromane, County Kerry, on whose behalf I am speaking, that this matter is being discussed in Dáil Éireann. I thank also the Minister for being present to hear the case I am about to make and to discuss the matter.

Cromane is a small coastal community in mid-Kerry, overlooking Castlemaine Harbour on the Iveragh Peninsula. Other than for its natural beauty and vibrant mussel fishing industry, it is probably most famous in recent years for the likes of Donnchadh Walsh and Seán O'Sullivan and the great footballing tradition in the area. It is a beautiful part of the world, with great potential both from a tourism point of view and in regard to growing the mussel fishing industry to support local jobs and provide a future for the young people of the area. The people involved in the industry work hard and have been fishing for mussels for generations, although they have been doing it with virtually zero coastal infrastructure to help them do their work. I invite the Minister, if he is Kerry at some point, to come and see how the mussel fishermen operate and how they have to contend without support infrastructure.

The need for a pier or some form of landing facility has been a long-running saga over many decades. I recall it being talked about when I was in secondary school in the 1990s and it still has not happened. There are various reasons for that, but here we are in 2021 and it is still needed. I dearly want it to happen. We have examined various funding mechanisms and options, but one of the first steps that needs to be taken is to establish what the best solution for the location would be. To do that, feasibility and design funding is required, and that has been difficult to come by. Thereafter, of course, construction funding is required as well.

Prior to Covid, I was trying to bring together a stakeholder forum, with all the players in the locality, the State agencies and the local authorities around the one table to try to work out a roadmap. Will the Minister provide a representative from his Department, in an advisory and consultative capacity, to help with the work of such a forum? Separately, will he examine the local authority element of the fishery harbour and coastal infrastructure development programme? It is quite restrictive in that it is capped at €200,000. While it has been very beneficial - do not get me wrong - to many places in Kerry and throughout the country by providing funding, for places such as Cromane where there is existing economic activity within the industry but zero infrastructure, I would like exceptions to be made in order that there could be feasibility and design funding to build that necessary infrastructure. Just because it was never there in the first instance should not mean that places such as Cromane would be left. It is important that we reconsider the upper limit of €200,000, which is not what it used to be, not least with the level of inflation in construction costs.

The 75% contribution element could be looked at. I am interested in hearing the Minister's thoughts.

I thank the Deputy for raising the matter. It is something on which he has done significant work in the past. The Minister for Education raised the issue with me as well. I know the Deputy has been engaged with this issue and has tried to progress it so it is good to be able to update him today. I will take him up on his offer of a visit. I hope to be in Kerry in September and will certainly visit it with the Deputy then.

To clarify matters for the Deputy, my Department owns, operates and maintains six designated State-owned fishery harbour centres located at Castletownbere, Dingle, Dunmore East, Howth, Killybegs and Ros an Mhíl under statute. In addition, the Department also has responsibility for the upkeep and maintenance of the North Harbour at Cape Clear as well as the maintenance of a small number of specific piers, lights and beacons throughout Ireland, in accordance with the Marine Works (Ireland) Act 1902.

As the Deputy is aware, responsibility for the development and maintenance of local authority-owned piers, harbours and slipways rests with each local authority in the first instance and the parent Department, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, thereafter. In that regard, I have no legislative remit for developments at Cromane. Responsibility for the development of the pier at Cromane rests with the county council, as the Deputy outlined. The mussel seed fishing in Castlemaine Harbour is regulated by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. In the case of Cromane, I am aware that the possibility of a project to develop a pier has been the subject of local interest for some years. However, any proposals for a potential future pier development project are solely a matter for Kerry County Council. That said, as part of my Department's annual fishery harbour and coastal infrastructure development programme, it provides funding to assist the 15 coastal local authorities in carrying out small-scale projects for the development and repair of piers, harbours and slipways in their ownership.

The local authority element of our capital programme co-funds up to 75% of the total cost of approved projects subject to a maximum overall project cost of €200,000 with the local authority providing the balance. Up to 2019, the cap was €150,000. I take the Deputy's point about the cap. The challenge for projects above that threshold is something on which I will reflect. Between 2010 and 2020, over €1.9 million in funding has been granted under this programme to Kerry County Council with approximately 25 harbours in the county benefiting over that period. Under this year's programme, funding of €4.2 million was made available nationally, meaning that 79 projects across the country could be supported. We have seen an allocation to Kerry of €213,000 in funding under this year's programme to undertake projects, two of which relate to harbour development while one relates to marine leisure and tourism.

Piers in Kerry benefiting under this year's programme include Dún Chaoin Pier, Knightstown Marina and Dúinín Pier in An Fheothanach. No application for funding was received under this year's programme with regard to Cromane Pier. Should any application be made for funding by Kerry County Council under any future programme in relation to capital works at Cromane Harbour, it will be given due consideration in line with available Exchequer funding.

I take the Deputy's request regarding support for a working group and the allocation of an official from my Department to facilitate and work with that. I will certainly do that to enable the Deputy to progress that work and work with the county council to see how the potential can be developed.

I thank the Minister for his very positive answer. I very much welcome the fact that he will come to Cromane to see exactly what we are dealing with and what the people working in the industry must contend with. That is very proactive of him. It is a long journey from Donegal down to Kerry but I assure the Minister it is a very beautiful part of the world and he will enjoy the journey and will be well looked after by the people of Cromane. They might even bring him into Jack's Coastguard as well, which is always worth a visit.

Putting forward a representative from the Department is very helpful because it may not require a super-duper pier that would cost millions. There may be a very cost-effective and practical solution we could identify but having that expertise around the table is crucial. That is something that is very welcome. I appreciate the Minister's commitment in that regard. This is something that could accelerate that process and bring about a much speedier conclusion to this long-running saga.

A FLAG-funded socioeconomic plan for the area from 2018 to 2022 was launched. This was one of the central pillars of that plan. There is potential to support the local fishing industry, local marine tourism and leisure craft operators. Such a facility would be invaluable. Castlemaine Harbour is a very scenic area. I am looking straight across at Cromane and can see the boats from my house every day. It has significant potential and will be very close to the new greenway in south Kerry. It is on the Wild Atlantic Way and the Ring of Kerry effectively so there is significant potential in the area. For years and years, mussel fishermen have been crying out for assistance through this infrastructure. The Minister's assistance will be very important in finally getting this over the line.

I look forward to coming down to Kerry in September with the Deputy and the Minister for Education and in the meantime working with the Deputy regarding how we can move things forward and work together on this. There has been significant investment across the county over the past ten years. I know the Deputy very much values the impact of that assessment and how it makes a significant difference. In particular, funding from the Department working with the local authorities makes a massive difference throughout a county, particularly a county like Kerry, which is very similar to my own county with lots of smaller piers and harbours. They need maintenance and upkeep but they make a massive difference. They are very significant for inshore fishermen, the marine resource and marine leisure. It is important that we invest in them. Twenty-five projects across Kerry to the tune of €1.9 million have been supported over the past ten years. Cromane did not receive funding during that period. I know the approach under consideration here is more significant than many of the others that were funded. Let us continue to work together in terms of the potential and assess that. I will certainly ensure that an official is made available to work with the Deputy and the local authority in terms of advice.

Deputy Griffin will have the kettle on when the Minister gives him notice.

Veterinary Medicines

This Topical Issue was originally put down by Deputy Nolan. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to pursue this in her stead given she could not be here due to unforeseen circumstances. I thank the Minister for coming here in person. None of us are too reluctant to criticise the fact that a senior Minister does not come in to answer Topical Issues so when the Minister is here, I would like to thank him for the fact he is here.

Over a year ago, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine looked at this issue and the changes that may or may not be required by EU law with regard to the prescription of veterinary medicines, in particular antiparasitics. Up to now, Ireland has enjoyed a derogation, as did the UK, with regard to the prescription or sale of antiparasitics as opposed to antimicrobial medicines through merchants. A number of them are in operation across the country, including Clare, and play a vital role in the supply of animal medicines. There has been a particular need for antimicrobial medicines this year. I am not a veterinarian but I say as a farmer that there has been a problem with fluke and worms this year and this is something many farmers would acknowledge.

The majority of farmers will have gotten medicines from a merchant until now. That avenue has been closed off, perhaps because of the European Union law. My understanding, based on the evidence given before the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food, and the Marine, was that the European Union introduced a regulation on that matter, whereas the United Kingdom entered a derogation to that in 2014. For whatever reason, we did not enter a derogation. There are some who would suggest that was because veterinarians had a greater sway in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine than, perhaps, merchants did. For whatever reason, we did not enter a derogation at that time. We could have done. It was the practice. A member state was allowed to enter a derogation, but we did not. Of course, it does not matter anymore in the United Kingdom, and I will come back to that in a minute. Up to 2018, we could have entered a derogation, but we did not. Now it seems that at the time the matter was before the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food, and the Marine, the advice from the Attorney General was awaited. However, it seems that some clarification has been obtained that it is no longer possible to enter a derogation nor is it possible to retrospectively regularise the situation in Ireland for the purposes of entering that derogation. If possible, the Minister might provide some clarity on that. The fear is that we will see a potential monopoly of supply in veterinarians, in circumstances where there is an increasing number of veterinary practices being bought up by commercial entities, rather than operating separately. Two or three weeks ago, Deputy Jackie Cahill introduced a Private Members' Bill in the House on that matter.

This is a very real fear. The purpose of this is to ensure the separation of prescription and dispensing. By seeking to pursue that, we might achieve the exact opposite: a monopoly, where large conglomerates that own veterinary practices have a monopoly on both dispensing and prescription of animal medicines.

I thank Deputies Michael McNamara and Carol Nolan for tabling the Topical Issue. Certainly, this has exercised minds in the farming community across the country over the last number of months. I have been looking at it and trying to address it. It is good to have the opportunity today to update the House on the current position. I acknowledge and thank the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food, and the Marine for its recommendations and observations on the EU Regulation 2019/6 on veterinary medicines which has, undoubtedly, a direct effect on all EU member states. The Deputy pointed out the responsible persons approach in the UK and the derogation it received. This is not available to us now. The UK, of course, is leaving. Obviously, Northern Ireland is in a different position, in terms of the cross-Border and one-island approach to animal health. All other EU member states issue medicines on prescription basis at the moment. The UK would have been the only one, as well as Ireland, that would have had the responsible persons. The difference was that our responsible persons were not issuing prescriptions but in the UK, they were. Indeed, they play and will continue to play an important role in our national set-up.

The EU Regulation 2019/6 legislates for the authorisation, use, and monitoring of veterinary medicine products in the EU. The legislation came into effect on 28 January 2019. It will apply to all EU member states from 28 January of this coming year. The regulation followed the adoption of a proposal in 2014 to develop fit-for-purpose veterinary legislation, which would no longer be based on the equivalent human medicines authorisation system. I confirm that all existing retailers of veterinary medicine, including licensed merchants and veterinary pharmacists, will continue to be legally permitted to sell antiparasitic medicines. I fully support the report by the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food, and the Marine and the observation it made that licensed merchants and veterinary pharmacists provide an excellent service to farmers in rural Ireland. I fully concur with that. However, from 28 January 2022, antiparasitic medicines will become prescription-only medicines, in line with EU law. From then, antiparasitic medicines can only be supplied on foot of a veterinary prescription, issued by a registered professional practitioner.

My Department received comprehensive advice from the Office of the Attorney General on 12 April 2021. It confirmed that the derogation provided for in article 1054 of EU Regulation 2019/6 is not available in Ireland. The conclusion of the advices was shared with the stakeholders to provide final clarity in advance of the antiparasitic resistance stakeholder group meeting on 15 April 2021. In line with standard Government policy, it is not possible to share the detail of the Attorney General's advices. Legal advices confirm that regulation 2019/6 solely permits the prescribing of veterinary medicines to be a function undertaken by registered veterinary practitioners. Licensed merchants and veterinary farmers will continue to play a valuable role in dispensing veterinary medicines.

Separately, my Department has also availed as legal advices to assess Ireland's options for separating the prescribing and dispensing of veterinary medicines, known as decoupling. For such decoupling to be permissible, a sound evidential basis in veterinary medicine is required to justify any partial or full prohibition on veterinarians selling the veterinary medicines that they prescribe-----

Thank you, Minister.

Such decoupling is not solely for the purposes of economically assisting one sector of an industry over another.

I thank the Minister.

If we could take a step back, the purpose of all of this is to reduce the overuse of antibiotics, antimicrobials and antiparasitics so that we do not have a build-up of resistance and that we do not have antibiotic resistance or antiparasitic resistance. As a farmer and, maybe more importantly, as a consumer, I greatly welcome that. However, how do we achieve that end? The Minister's second point about the decoupling of prescriptions and dispensing was that it cannot be for the economic benefit of one group over another. I agree with that, but the purpose of all of this is not economics. It is about animal health and, by extension, human health, and making sure that we do not have antibiotic resistance either in animals or in humans as both would be equally worrying.

Rather than looking at the economics of the situation, we need to look at - I do not have this information but I am sure that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine does - the extent of the use of antibiotics and antiparasitics in Ireland, as well as how that fits in with international, particularly European, trends. The use of medicines is far more prescribed in Europe and there is a greater consciousness of not overusing animal medicines than there might be, perhaps, in other parts of the world, such as South America or Australia. Hence, we hope to continue to be able to provide a higher-quality product.

On that basis, I ask that the Minister's Department continues to look at this decoupling of prescriptions from dispensing so that we do not have these large conglomerates that employ veterinarians, rather than the old way, where every village and large town had a family-run veterinary practice. This is also so that we do not end up with a corporate model that controls the prescription and the dispensing of medicines, which would be very negative for health, as opposed to the economy of our country.

I thank the Deputy and ask the Minister to conclude.

I thank Deputy McNamara. I will complete the points I was making. The Department's view was that there was an absence of a sound veterinary medicine evidential basis for a partial or full decoupling. As a result, decoupling does not currently appear to be a viable option. The Department shared the outcome of these advices with the members of the antiparasitic resistance stakeholders group. In response to concerns raised about prescribing particular branded veterinary medicines, I intend to permit substitute medicines to be dispensed, that contain the same active substances as the main prescribed medicine. This will sustain competition for all suppliers of veterinary medicines, to the benefit of Irish farmers and their livestock. Antimicrobial resistance and antiparasitic resistance both pose significant challenges to Irish farmers and, indeed, to human health, as a follow-on. It is an important issue and it is crucial that we addresses it in a serious manner that is required. Obviously, there is an EU regulation with which we have to be legally compliant.

Our legal advice is clear that it requires prescription-based issuing. The key thing that I am trying to achieve is that it does not impact on the capacity for competition in the market and that we find a mechanism where we can have it on a prescription basis but that competition remains, with continuing availability of sources of the prescription for farmers. It is a significant issue for licensed merchants, for whom it is a key part of their business. We are cognisant of that concern. I am continuing to work through this and looking at the situation to try to find a way that ensures that we are compliant, that we address the issues of antimicrobial and antiparasitic resistance, that we ensure that there is competition in the market and that we do not add costs to farmers. I thank Deputy McNamara for raising it.

Foreign Policy

The next item, which was tabled initially by Deputy John Brady, is being raised by Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú.

Táim an-bhuíoch don Cheann Comhairle agus don fhoireann uilig as an obair agus as an gcabhair uilig. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy English, for taking this. I am sure that he will prove his revolutionary credentials soon. In all seriousness, we are dealing with the US economic blockade of Cuba. Many people in this Chamber and outside in Irish society see this as something that is cruel and has been a failure for 60 years. It has not even delivered what it was meant to do by the people who introduced it. It was not exactly JFK's finest hour. We are dealing with significant suffering that has impacted on many people for no real net gain other than internal American politics and keeping certain constituencies happy, especially in Florida. I want to put on the record my solidarity with the Cuban people and also address the unfairness and wrongness of this. We have a seat on the UN Security Council and we are a major player in the European Union. We have to play our part as ourselves and on an international basis in putting on the record the message that this is not working and is not good. We need a viable future for the Cuban people. The only way that that can be done is by lifting this utterly unfair and failed policy of an economic blockade.

At the beginning of the Covid-19 onslaught, harrowing pictures came from many of our European neighbours. People went through significant difficulties and tragedies. As has happened many times before, medical staff from Cuba were airlifted in to stand with front-line defenders, many of them at breaking points, in some of the worst-affected areas. Some of these people made the ultimate sacrifice. This shows significant courage and selflessness. It is how I see the Cuban Revolution and it shows the humanitarian instincts of the Cuban people. They were applauded globally but the United States continues with this absolutely failed and cruel policy. We need to deal with it.

The United Nations General Assembly recently had a resolution against this blockade. Some 184 countries voted to get rid of the blockade, three abstained and two voted in support of maintaining the blockade, namely, the US and Israel. There is no international support for this. It is wrong. We had the Obama regime and a normalisation of diplomatic contacts and lifting of sanctions. We then had the Trump regime and approximately 243 coercive measures were introduced, which were utterly wrong. Even in this pandemic, there is a situation where Cuba may have the vaccines but it cannot necessarily get the needles and other medical paraphernalia required. It is utterly wrong and we need to play our part. We need to put it on the record and to have this blockade lifted.

On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Coveney, I thank Deputy Ó Murchú for raising this issue. As the House will be aware, the United States has maintained a comprehensive economic embargo on Cuba since 1962, which prevents US businesses or businesses with commercial activities in the US from trading with Cuban interests. Ireland's position on this embargo is long-standing and clear. Fundamentally, the embargo serves no constructive purpose and its lifting would facilitate an opening of Cuba's economy to the benefit of its people. The Minister for Foreign Affairs has expressed this view publicly on a number of occasions. In the context of the hardship caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the injustice and severity of the US blockade has never been clearer. I assure the House on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Coveney, that this issue receives close attention in the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Officials in the Department closely follow developments with the US embargo on Cuba, especially in respect of the 1996 Helms–Burton Act. As the Deputy will be aware, it is a US federal law that strengthens and continues the economic embargo against Cuba. The Government was concerned by the decision taken in 2019 by the previous US Administration to suspend waivers under Title 3 of the Act, which had previously protected European parties and entities from its extraterritorial elements. Together with our EU partners, Ireland has firmly and continuously opposed extraterritorial measures that seek to extend the US embargo against Cuba to third countries. These measures are contrary to the commonly accepted rules of international trade.

Cuba also features regularly on the agenda of the EU working party on Latin America and the Caribbean, COLAC, at which Ireland is represented at an official level. The Minister for Foreign Affairs has echoed EU High Representative and Vice-President Borrell's statement following the EU-Cuba joint council in January this year, regretting the inclusion of Cuba on the list of state sponsors of terrorism by the previous US Administration. This decision will have a negative impact on foreign direct investment in Cuba and further aggravates the already difficult situation of the Cuban people in the midst of the pandemic. Ireland, along with its EU partners, has consistently supported the annual resolution put forward by Cuba at the UN General Assembly regarding the US economic blockade. This long-standing resolution has enjoyed the support of the majority of the international community. I confirm to the House that Ireland voted in favour of this resolution when it was brought before the General Assembly on 23 June.

Ireland will continue to support the lifting of the US embargo on Cuba. Officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs, including at the Embassy of Ireland in Mexico, which covers Cuba, will continue to monitor the situation in closely in liaison with our EU partners.

I welcome what the Minister of State has said about support for lifting the embargo. I call on this State to do everything that it can to highlight this issue. In recent days and weeks, we have witnessed the efforts of what I can only call sinister forces attempting to subvert the combined efforts of the Cuban people and Government. It smacks of the old, 1980s, Reagan school of CIA dirty plays. It is of no benefit. We need to move into a new sphere. We have seen the abject failure of America when it has attempted to carry out regime change. We have even seen it try to extricate itself from some situations that it found itself in in recent days. There is a significant power differential, which needs to be accepted. It is America versus the tiny country of Cuba. It is stunting and forcing people into significant hardship. It is wrong and we have to do whatever we can about it.

I always compare Cuba with other countries in South and Central America, the Caribbean and Latin America, which America would consider its backyard.

In fairness, we need to look at what Cuba did in wiping out illiteracy and innumeracy, and at the health system it put in place, compared to other countries that have been impacted by America and the major difference between those that have and those that have not in those place, to see why we continue to give support to the Cuban revolution. However, we need to give Cuba real support by playing our part in ensuring that this utterly wrong blockade is lifted and that there can be regular, proper economic activity in Cuba.

I again thank Deputy Ó Murchú for his contribution and I welcome the opportunity to speak again on the issue. I acknowledge the severe impact the Covid-19 pandemic has had on Cuba, not least in leading to a collapse, essentially, of the international tourism industry on which the Cuban economy is hugely dependent. I note the Cuban authorities managed to contain the initial outbreak of Covid-19 very well but in recent weeks, as so many other countries have experienced, they are faced with rising case numbers and difficult decisions on measures to control the spread while seeking to protect a vulnerable economy.

A number of the restrictions introduced by the Trump administration that I referenced in my earlier reply have served to further exacerbate an already fragile situation for the people of Cuba in the midst of a severe health crisis. We have seen reports of severe shortages of medicines, medical equipment and fuel. I reiterate Ireland's firm support for the lifting of the US embargo, which will facilitate an opening of Cuba's economy to the benefit of its people. I am well aware of reports of recent protests across Cuba and the arrests in response to those demonstrations. We urge the Cuban authorities to respect the right to demonstrate peacefully, to listen to legitimate protests of discontent, to seek dialogue and to release any people detained for peaceful protest. Again, officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs continue to monitor the situation closely, including working with our colleagues in the American Embassy, which covers Cuba, and are always happy to engage.

Covid-19 Pandemic

The next matter is from Deputy Tóibín, who wishes to discuss the practice of discharging patients from hospitals into nursing homes during the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Having put a stop to his gallop on this particular matter the other evening, I am happy to see we have been able to select it today.

Yesterday, under freedom of information, FOI, a document was released to me from the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF. The document was an email, which was issued to nursing homes by the contract manager of the NTPF shortly before 10 a.m. on 12 March 2020. I have already furnished the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Mary Butler, with a copy of this email, which states that the NTPF had been asked to establish capacity within the nursing home sector. It goes on to state that nursing homes will need: " have the ability to care for patients coming from [the] acute hospital setting..." and further states:

Facilities must be able to facilitate short term residents being discharged from [an] acute hospital. ...residents...may be nominated by the HSE [and] the Department of Health as applicable for receipt of appropriate funding.

Describing what will happen, the letter states that the individual facility would co-ordinate directly with the discharge unit within the hospital.

This is a damning document. In many ways, it is a smoking gun. We know that the Covid-19 nursing home expert panel found that 10,000 patients were discharged from hospitals into nursing homes in the first six months of 2020. Was it a Government decision to move elderly patients, wholesale, out of hospital beds and cram them into nursing homes? The major question is who instructed the NTPF to issue this email? The email states that nursing homes were asked to establish capacity. Who asked them? That is the first question.

We have also learned a pot of money was offered to nursing homes at this time. How much was offered to get older people out of hospitals? The context of this discussion is pivotal. In early March, nursing homes voluntarily closed their doors to visitors in an attempt to protect vulnerable residents. On 10 March, Dr. Holohan, the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, issued a statement stating that these restrictions were not necessary. This document shows that two days after telling nursing homes to reopen their doors, an email was issued to nursing homes instructing them to make way for a large influx of patients from hospitals. Further FOI documents released reveal that, throughout all of this, the Minister for Health at the time, Deputy Simon Harris, repeatedly ignored requests for meetings from the chief executive officer, CEO, of Nursing Homes Ireland, Tadhg Daly.

The Fianna Fáil Opposition spokesperson at the time was the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and he revealed that the HSE "intercepted" supplies of oxygen, personal protective equipment, PPE, and staff that were meant for nursing homes. Was there a concerted effort by the Government or the HSE to take older people out of the safety of hospitals and cram them into nursing homes during the pandemic? How could this decision be made when the Minister in charge was ignoring appeals from the sector to meet with him, when nursing homes were having their PPE, oxygen and staff taken from them by the HSE and when the CMO was telling nursing homes to keep their doors wide open to the public?

These were an incredible set of events at a period when there was an influx of Covid-19 in this country. It should be remembered, in all the conversations we have had about Covid, the majority of people who died with Covid were in a nursing home or hospital, two locations owned, or under the regulation of, this Government. Can the Minister answer these questions?

The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, was due to take this question today but due to the change of time for Topical Issues, she cannot do so as she is bringing legislation through the Seanad. She sends her apologies for not being in the Chamber for this debate.

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented challenge across our health services and none more so than in our nursing homes. The National Public Health Emergency Team, the Department, the HSE and the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, placed a focus on supporting older people in nursing homes throughout the pandemic. Quality care and patient safety is a priority and our continued focus is, and will always be, to deliver safe and high-quality services. From the start of the pandemic, the HSE, through the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, has developed an extensive body of guidance and support tools to assist in the management of Covid-19 cases, including in relation to decisions on transfer of patients and residents between care facilities, where appropriate.

The decision to discharge patients from hospitals to nursing home settings is always subject to clinical assessment. Discharges to nursing homes and other settings are a regular, daily feature of a functioning health system. The period from early March 2020 to mid-April 2020 saw an increase in the number of such discharged patients as the health system prepared itself for an expected surge in Covid-19 cases. From an older person's perspective, being admitted for longer than necessary increases the risk of a patient contracting a healthcare associated infection or deconditioning. The vast majority of these discharges took place from 10 March 2020 onwards, when clear public health guidance was in place across all acute hospitals.

On 10 March 2020, the HSE issued interim guidance on transfer between care facilities, which included preliminary guidance on the transfer of hospitalised patients from an acute hospital to a residential care facility in the context of the pandemic. This guidance was circulated to all acute hospitals, community healthcare organisations and residential care facilities accepting admissions of residents. In order to ensure sufficient acute hospital capacity to manage the anticipated surge in hospitals, emergency funding was made available to ensure patients who were clinically stable and appropriate for transfer could have their discharge facilitated, while adhering to the guidance.

There was also an emphasis on ensuring that those patients who had completed their acute medical treatment should be prioritised for such transfers, either to residential care or with some home support, so as to avoid their exposure to the anticipated surge and prevent hospital-acquired Covid-19. The protocols set out in the guidance, along with infection prevention and control advice and supports, were put in place to assist the nursing home sector, with a view to mitigating the level of risk and transfer of Covid-19.

It must be recognised that the pandemic has not concluded, and at this time a priority focus of Government remains on the ongoing management of Covid-19 and our response to it, to ensure that the positive gains now being experienced are preserved and that those most vulnerable to the virus continue to be safeguarded in the light of residual risk. The Department is continuing to look at options that may be available to the State in listening to the voices of those who have lost a loved one.

I conclude by expressing my sincere condolences to those who have lost a loved one during this difficult time.

In fairness, none of the questions I asked about accountability have been addressed by the Minister of State whatsoever. This is a serious problem. We need clarification with regard to who is behind these decisions. She mentioned that HSE support was provided to the nursing homes. That is not exactly true. Further freedom of information documents I have received show that on 19 October 2020, the Minister of State with responsibility for older persons and mental health, Deputy Mary Butler, wrote to the chief executive of the HSE, Mr. Paul Reid, seeking assurances that the HSE would continue to provide staffing support to homes. Paul Reid did not respond to the Minister of State for a month. When he did, he said that all was well and that the HSE would continue to provide funding for nursing home staffing and support for nursing homes. On 16 October 2020, a similar letter was sent to Mr. Phelim Quinn, the chief executive of HIQA. Paul Reid said he was disappointed that Mr. Quinn stated certain private nursing homes had not reported that they have received support from the HSE.

When Mr. Reid was telling HIQA and the Minister of State that all was well, I had people from nursing homes on the telephone to me crying for staff. I have in mind specifically a case in the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton's, county, Galway. It occurred almost at the same time that these letters were issued. All staff in a nursing home, bar two, tested positive and it was left without any support. This resulted in the two staff who had tested negative being unable to leave the nursing home because there were no replacement staff. That is an incredible situation. In case the Minister of State did not notice, the headlines in the newspapers at the time were screaming about staff shortages in nursing homes. All the while there were 75,000 people who had applied to Be On Call for Ireland but they were pretty much left untouched.

The Minister of State mentioned people being discharged under normal regulations. People were being discharged from these hospitals into nursing homes without being tested. It was an incredible situation. When will there be a full investigation? When will there be accountability? When can we be sure this will not happen again?

The pandemic has been a particularly difficult time for all residents, relatives and staff of our nursing homes. As the House will be aware, the Covid-19 nursing home expert panel established last year provided a comprehensive report and package of recommendations in respect of the ongoing response to Covid-19 and longer-term strategic reform of the care of older persons. Many of the short and medium-term recommendations of the Covid-19 nursing home expert panel report have been implemented. Several of these relate to the delivery of a broad suite of supports provided to private nursing homes, including free personal protective equipment, serial testing, HSE Covid-19 response teams, infection prevention and control training and temporary accommodation for staff. Continued learning and understanding of the progression of the disease in Ireland is an integral part of those recommendations. There has been significant and ongoing consideration of the impact of the pandemic. There have been various examinations and reports with a focus on Covid-19, its impact on nursing homes and the pandemic learnings that can inform future policy, regulation and the model of care for older people.

There has been a clear national commitment to continue to learn from the pandemic as the national and international understanding of the virus evolves. Where necessary we will ensure that the public health led approach evolves as evidence and learning materialises. The findings of these reports confirm that the infectious nature of Covid-19 makes it difficult to prevent and control in residential care settings. I look forward to supporting the significant work that is in train to further improve services for older persons.

An Taisce

Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle. I wish you well as we break up this evening. I thank you for your co-operation and I thank the team, including Peter Finnegan and everyone else, for their help throughout this term. Thank you for selecting this Topical Issue matter, which is important.

An Taisce has done brilliant work in the schools competitions, Tidy Towns competitions, green flag competitions and in assisting people in many other ways as well as giving leadership in the country. However, serious issues have now arisen with An Taisce. Only recently I became aware of the funding. An Taisce has already received €4.5 million in taxpayers' money so far in 2021. In the past decade the organisation has received in excess of €30 million in taxpayers’ funding. It is State funding but it is taxpayers' funding ultimately. As we know, it is a prescribed organisation and planning permission has to be referred to the organisation if the site is anywhere near a national heritage area or listed building.

I believe that it has gone into overreach. We have a situation involving a Glanbia plant in south Kilkenny. The group have been holding it up now for several years. Planning permission was granted by Kilkenny County Council and the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. The applicants have the licence and An Bord Pleanála approved it. An Taisce has taken the board to the High Court three times. This is an abuse of its position. This is using taxpayers' funding to deny taxpayers. Farmers have invested millions of euro to upgrade and increase the national herd and to have milk supplied in the hope that it will be made into cheddar cheese that is so badly wanted. A Dutch company is pulling out. The Taoiseach was asked if the group would stop the claims or any more High Court appeals. There are rumours that they may even go to Europe.

I have asked the group how they are funding all these cases. The Rural Independent Group met them. They will not meet us again. We only had a short meeting for an hour. They insisted on having it recorded. I asked how they were funding these cases. They told me it was pro bono. Few lawyers will do pro bono cases that go to the High Court several times as well as the European court. It is simply not doable.

The tap must be turned off on the funding. I will bring forward an amendment in the autumn to have An Taisce unprescribed because the group have become a nuisance and an irritant now. They are too big for their boots and are doing significant damage.

There is a period house in Knocklofty owned by the late Earl of Donoughmore. It has been ruined but they will not even look at something like that. They will not look at issues they should be looking at but they are looking at issues where they have no business. They are stopping farmers from doing work that they need to do. It is total overreach.

I hope the Minister of State will have some ideas about reining them in. The Taoiseach told the House his position but they ignored him and appealed again. We have to do something to get this group. They can do the valuable work they do, but they should allow business, farmers and people to produce food for us to eat in this country.

I fully agree with all the sentiments from Deputy McGrath. There should be a full investigation into where the funding of An Taisce is going.

An Taisce should have made a submission on the fever hospital in Croom. Those involved never made any application on it. They were asked afterwards and they blamed Covid-19. They are funded for certain cases. Where An Taisce should be doing work, those involved are not doing it and in cases where they are not supposed to be doing work, they are doing it. We can see what they are doing with the cheese factory. We can see the whole country is changing around. We are trying to push everything to imports to the country. We have the facilities and resources to do it. We are closing things down. We are allowing An Taisce, with taxpayers' money, to stop this. The buck stops with the Government and with the funding. It should stop now if those involved are not willing to encourage and look after our industries and get involved in creating work for the country rather than taking it out of here.

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications has no legal function in respect of An Taisce. The Department provides An Taisce with funding for a variety of initiatives, including the National Spring Clean, Irish Business Against Litter, national anti-litter league and green schools programme. All payments made to An Taisce are in line with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform circular 13/2014 regarding the management of grant funding provided from public money.

Grant funding is paid on the basis of vouched expenditure only. An Taisce is required to provide supporting invoices stating that its claims relate to activities and services appropriate to the grant scheme objectives. The An Taisce green schools initiative, which Deputy Mattie McGrath outlined, is a whole-school programme and awards scheme comprising seven steps. It takes a thematic approach to environmental education. Key themes include litter and waste, energy, water, travel and biodiversity. Approximately 4,000 primary, secondary and special schools in Ireland are participating in the programme. This programme has been operating in Ireland since 1997 and is operated by the environmental education unit of An Taisce in partnership with local authorities and is supported by a number of Government Departments and agencies as well as corporate funders. The programme covers a wide range of thematic areas and impact measurements indicate substantial positive changes in knowledge, behaviour and opinion leadership among the participants. There are also substantial direct and indirect cost savings for schools in respect of waste, energy, water, and transport fuel with an associated reduction in greenhouse gases.

The national spring clean is Ireland's largest anti-litter initiative and has been operating since 1999. The programme encourages and supports individuals and groups across society to take part in their own clean-up events. In 2020, the national spring clean took place without incident during a pandemic. The number of events in 2020 was 5,413 and approximately 2,900 tonnes of litter was collected. In 2021, the national spring clean progressed under level 5 restrictions. Family or household bubble groups held their own clean-up within a 5 km radius of their homes. As the level of restrictions is lifted, the spring clean will be able to expand its scope and carry on through the summer and into autumn

The estimated allocation to An Taisce for 2021 is in line with the 2020 allocation of €675,000. Final details on payments in 2021 will not be available until the end of the year.

I welcome the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and thank her for all of her co-operation over the past year. I know she differs with me ferociously on this issue. I have acknowledged all of the good work of An Taisce. I have been involved in the green schools campaign and have worked with Tidy Towns groups all of my life. I acknowledge the good work An Taisce has done but I believe we need to recalibrate its role. I told the Minister of State about the listed building formerly belonging to the Donoughmores at Knocklofty Demesne. It has been plundered, as have many other sites, but An Taisce does not seem to have any interest in it. However, when it comes to jobs and farmers trying to earn a living, it comes out with patent nonsense. Apparently, it has no issue with the plant. Its issue is with Government policy regarding milk production and dairy herd numbers. This is shocking. It always said that it is good for work. We need to work together. We need to rein in its funding and to have some debate. An Taisce will not talk to us or meet with us. This has to stop. We cannot keep throwing money at it for every invoice it gives us. It is wrong.

I share Deputy Mattie McGrath's sentiments. We welcome the work An Taisce does with regard to the clean-up. I am been involved in the clean-ups in Limerick, as have all my family, neighbours and friends. That is a plus and a positive. The negative is what An Taisce is doing on the other side. The Minister of State has just said that it invoiced us for €675,000 during 2020. I want these invoices audited to ensure it is doing what it says on the tin. If it is not, then we will be able to get more out of that €675,000. It can be spent with more accountability so that we will be able to see where the money is going. We can get more work done out of it. I am a self-employed businessperson and may be audited. Let us audit An Taisce and see whether these invoices are legitimate and whether we can get the most possible for the funding it is getting.

An Taisce is a non-governmental organisation active in the areas of the environment and built heritage in Ireland. The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications has no statutory function in respect of this organisation. The Department provides An Taisce with funding for a variety of initiatives, including the national spring clean, Irish Business Against Litter, the national litter league and the green schools programme. A total of €5.4 million has been provided between 2012 and 2020 in respect of these environmental activities and public awareness initiatives. The estimated allocation for 2021 is in line with the 2020 allocation of €675,000. However, final details of the payments for 2021 will not be available until the end of the year. It is important to state that all payments made to An Taisce are in line with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform's Circular 13/2014 regarding the management of grant funding provided from public money. As I have stated, grant funding is paid on the basis of vouched expenditure only and An Taisce is required to provide supporting invoices stating that its claims relate to activities and services appropriate to the grant scheme's objectives.