Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Yesterday in the Dáil, the Tánaiste stated in response to me that the establishment of a discretionary fund to assist households with rising utility bills and, in some cases, debt was a very good idea and would be looked at prior to the upcoming budget. I welcome that. This is a proposal that we introduced in a motion in the Dáil last February on increasing energy costs, the impact of the carbon tax increases and the need for the Government to act.

Now, seven months later, the situation is even worse. Energy prices are soaring, further carbon tax increases are on the way and households are struggling. Families are rationing fuel and they are making choices between putting food on the table and turning on the heating. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, in a major survey earlier this year, found that nearly 20% of working people are cutting back on fuel and electricity due to costs. Increasing the fuel allowance for existing recipients in the upcoming budget is not enough. We need to look at eligibility and we need to establish a fund to ensure that workers and families outside of the fuel allowance can seek assistance. As the Minister who will be overseeing spending in the upcoming budget, I ask the Minister whether he will commit to this.

I thank the Deputy and I know she raised this issue yesterday as well. Undoubtedly, the significant increase in gas prices internationally is now working through to the very high increases which we are seeing in electricity prices. That is a real concern. We are also seeing it, of course, at the pumps in the forecourts in regard to petrol and diesel. The Government will take this into account in framing budget 2022. The fuel allowance is a really important support for about 375,000 households in the country. As the Deputy knows, it kicks in next week for 28 weeks at a payment of €28 per week. Of course, the rate and the scope and the eligibility criteria for that scheme will be considered carefully by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and me in the context of the Estimates. We recognise that a lot of people are under pressure and we will take that into account in framing our final decisions.

On that point, it is time the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, and the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, who is responsible for energy, look at this issue on a pan-European level. This issue is not just going to be in Ireland; it is going to be everywhere. The Minister might update the House on what the Government has done in that regard. This is coming down the track very quickly. We are going to have a crisis in this country in the coming weeks and months. It is quite obvious, with inflation and the cost of utility bills, that people are not going to be able to afford them. It is in that zone that I know the Government is going to make increases in the budget, which I welcome. Kites are flying, and that is fine. However, I want to make one thing very clear as regards the dates by which the Government will make these increases. We cannot postpone the winter. Eligibility criteria for fuel allowance increases in regard to the pension and other measures are going to have to be from budget time. They cannot be postponed until 1 January. While the Minister will not announce the budget here today and I respect that, will he at least give us an indication that he will consider that and not have it postponed until January?

I thank the Deputy. We will, of course, consider the point that he has made in regard to the commencement date of any changes that we make. As I said, for those in receipt of the fuel allowance, they will start to receive the benefit of that next week but there are many people who do not get the fuel allowance currently, given the eligibility criteria. It is a means-tested support and people are allowed a certain level of income above the basic social welfare, as the Deputy knows. There are many people who do not get it and, certainly, we acknowledge that the timing of any changes in respect of people's incomes will be particularly important and sensitive in the forthcoming budget, and we will be taking that into account.

It has been reported in the media that there are potential delays to both the MetroLink and the DART+ schemes. There is not a lot of clarity around this but there is an awful lot of concern because these two projects are major infrastructure projects that have been promised by successive Governments over very many years. Can the Minister tell me, in regard to the new national development plan, NDP, that he will be bringing forward in the next number of weeks, what is the start and end date of both of those projects under that plan? Have changes been made to those completion dates as per the current NDP and are any delays foreseen for those projects?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. What I can confirm is that the review of the national development plan is almost complete and will be published before the budget. We now have agreement from Cabinet in regard to the overall financial framework. It is going to be the largest public capital investment programme in the history of the State for transport. It will involve an investment of the order of €35 billion across the decade out to 2030, and the review of the NDP will involve providing an update for some of the critical projects the Deputy has outlined in regard to MetroLink, DART+ and BusConnects. I am working with the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, on that and the published review of the NDP will set out the latest plans in that regard.

For over a year, Debenhams workers waged a heroic struggle against the loss of their jobs and their treatment by their employer. In many respects, their struggle epitomised the treatment of some workers by some employers in the course of the pandemic. Yesterday, the Government announced that employees who had lost their job during Covid would now be able to seek redundancy and it announced a special payment to workers who have lost out on reckonable service as a consequence of the pandemic. The statement also said that the Government would take a flexible and discretionary approach to the granting of that payment.

I have two questions for the Minister. First, will the Debenhams workers, who were very seriously affected by the pandemic, be able to apply for and access the special payment? Second, can the Government act to ensure that the €3 million training fund that was agreed at the conclusion of that dispute is actually distributed?

I thank the Deputy for again raising the issue of the former Debenhams workers. I will look into the issue of that training fund because we have sanctioned it and the fund should be up and running to provide the support for people who want to return to work, if they have not already returned to work. The decision we made yesterday, I believe, is a fair one because it would be grossly unfair, having not allowed employees to trigger a redundancy claim for a period of 18 months, to then deny them that period as being reckonable when it comes to calculating their redundancy entitlements. I cannot comment on any particular case until I have all of the details but the very intention of what the Government announced was to address that situation because people were denied the right to claim redundancy because of the statutory position underpinned by Covid. That has now changed, we are allowing people to claim and the State is going to step up and provide the funding to ensure that reckonable period counts for their redundancy.

I am sure everyone in the House supports the climate action target to reduce emissions by 51% by 2030. A large component of meeting this target is the development of significant onshore renewable energy and even more capital intensive offshore renewables. We are at present facing a perfect storm in terms of our energy security. In the last decade, we had 11 amber alerts on the national grid whereas we have had eight in the last 12 months, even as we phase out fossil fuels. Even so, the Government is availing of ongoing discussions regarding data centre development, which will account for up to 35% of future electricity generation. Will the Government provide a new real-time analysis regarding the present trajectory in data centre development but also in terms of meeting the infrastructure developments required to deliver on our climate targets?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. As he knows, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities and EirGrid are working closely with the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan's Department to ensure that we have security of supply across this winter and, indeed, into the future and have taken certain steps to ensure that is the case. In regard to data centres, there is a balance to be struck. We, of course, have to recognise the additional pressure that places on the system, but we also have to recognise the success we have had and continue to have in regard to foreign direct investment by companies which would be associated with this space. Sixteen of the top software companies, nine of the top ten US information and communications technology companies, the top ten “born on the web” companies and four of the top five IT services companies are all based in Ireland. There is a balance to be struck. We absolutely have to ensure we have security of supply. The Deputy is well aware of the overall policy of Government, which is ultimately to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and to reduce carbon emissions. I think the future in respect of renewables lies offshore. We have put in place another framework that will help us deliver on that in the years ahead.

The people of Carrick-on-Suir, south Kilkenny and east Waterford are at the gates of the Dáil now. They have 11,000 signatures signed by people on a petition, and it is no ordinary petition.

It asked people if they would be happy to put their loved ones into St. Brigid's hospital, Carrick-on-Suir. The Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, has refused to meet the committee and Councillor Kieran Burke, the Minister's own colleague, and Councillor David Dunne and members of Tipperary County Council. The Government has not met the action committee either. It is a wonderful institution. In the middle of Covid, it defies any logic that the Government closed this hospital. I am asking both of them now to come out to the gate and receive that petition to give respect to the people who signed it and listen to the people. They might not listen to us, but listen to the people who signed this petition and give explanations. The only explanation they want is a reopening of that hospital - a wonderful institution including hospice beds as well.

I thank Deputy Mattie McGrath for raising that question. The Minister of State, Deputy Mary Butler, met with the INMO and the local representatives in the area-----

------in respect of St. Brigid's hospital in Carrick-on-Suir. I will allow the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, to come back to the Deputy on the detail of that.

For the record, Questions on Promised Legislation also includes questions on matters relating to the programme for Government. That has traditionally been the way here.

We have nobody from the Independent Group. I call Deputy Griffin.

I want to raise with the Minister the Right to Read Campaign by Children's Books Ireland. This is a campaign to restore the school library fund. The budget previously included a grant to help schools stock their school libraries but this was cut in 2008. It has not been restored since. There is a great opportunity now with the forthcoming budget to restore that grant. It is very important.

Reading really does matter to children. It is hugely important in their lives. I say that as a father of two young readers, as someone who has written books for children and someone who has taught children. It really makes a difference.

Approximately €5.6 million would allocate €10 in respect of every primary school child in the country and the Minister really would be bringing the books to the children. We have great public libraries but they do not catch all children. This is a great opportunity for a relatively small amount and I ask the Minister to give it serious consideration in the context of the forthcoming budget.

I thank Deputy Griffin for raising this issue. As the Deputy will be aware, the Minister for Education and the Government generally place great priority on the issue of literacy and encouraging children and, indeed, adults to constantly upskill and enjoy the undoubted benefits of reading. I note that the issue of local authority librarians providing services for primary schools is an important one.

The Minister for Education is conscious of the importance of library services. The Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, has responsibility for the support and provision of funding for library services. Therefore, I will take up the issue with both Ministers in the context of what the Deputy has raised.

Deputy Connolly, my apologies. I should have called you earlier.

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Before Covid, on 27 January 2016, the first ever national maternity strategy was launched with great fanfare and, indeed, on the pain and suffering of mothers and children. Four years later, on 12 February 2020, still before Covid, HIQA published its report. The report highlighted HIQA's concern at the overall level of progress in the implementation of the strategy. Fast forward to a motion in my name, on 2 June this year, supported entirely by every part in the Dáil and all the Independents, calling, among other things, for the immediate implementation of the plan and to produce a costed implementation plan as a matter of urgency. Can the Minister update me on the status of that urgent plan?

I thank Deputy Connolly for raising the national maternity strategy. The Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, was in a position to provide full funding for the plan in the current year. Very significant progress has been made in its implementation but we certainly acknowledge that more needs to be done. I will ask the Minister to come back to the Deputy formally with an update.

The programme for Government commits to a referendum on the right to housing. Such a right - coupled with the Housing for All strategy which was the whole-of-government approach which is costed and funded, and deliverable and realistic - to be enshrined in the Constitution would be the part that is missing in the Government's overall housing strategy. Can the Minister provide the House with an update on that programme for Government commitment on a constitutional right to housing?

I thank Deputy Matthews for raising this issue. As the Deputy will be aware, the recent Housing for All document commits to the establishment, consistent with the programme for Government, of a commission on housing. It is intended that the terms of reference of the commission will include consideration of the referendum on housing and it will have the opportunity to hear from a range of stakeholders as to what they believe the referendum should focus on. This is a programme for Government commitment and I look forward to seeing the commission examine this issue and make a recommendation to Government.

As the Minister will be aware, yesterday was World Alzheimer's Day. Earlier this year, we saw the US Food and Drug Administration give approval for Aduhelm, which has shown promise, particularly in the treatment of early onset dementia. The European Medicines Agency is currently considering an application for approval which was filed last year. Is there any update on this application? Will the Government commit to funding this drug, if approved, under the GMS and drugs payment scheme?

I thank Deputy Patricia Ryan. I do not have specific details of that particular drug. As the Deputy will be aware, there is an agreed process for the approval of medicines and the consideration of value for money through the National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics. I do not know exactly what stage in the process that particular drug is at but I will ask the Minister and his officials to revert to the Deputy with a detailed reply.

I wish to raise the issue of the unwelcome possibility of electricity blackouts in the next six months or so. I would ask the Minister if provision can be made to ensure that we will be sufficiently prepared for such eventualities and that every effort is being made to ensure that these unwelcome prospects do not occur.

Can you keep the lights on, Minister?

I thank the Ceann Comhairle, and thank Deputy Durkan for raising the issue. As I stated a moment ago, the relevant bodies here are all working together - the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, EirGrid and the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications. They have taken certain steps to ensure continuity of supply. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has said he is confident that there will not be any unforeseen outages.

As the Deputy will be aware, there have been certain early warnings issued over the course of the year but on no occasion was power supply interrupted for any customer. It is important to put that on the record.

I want to raise with the Minister the crisis in the timber industry and the forestry industry. Farmers cannot get a felling licence. Over 5,000 licences are held up in the system. One case I have is three years waiting and the forestry is nearly within a stone's throw of a sawmill that is importing timber from Scotland. The reality is sawmills are importing from abroad where there are forests within a four-to-five mile radius of them that need to be cut. It has gone past the time to do so.

Confidence has collapsed in the sector. In Laois, for example, up to 450 ha were being planted per annum. It dropped last year to 26 ha planted in County Laois.

The backlog needs to be cleared. I appeal to the Minister to take up this issue with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, who was here and probably had to leave on other business. If the Minister could take this up with Deputy McConalogue, he needs to get a grip on it. We need a single consent system like other European countries for planting, thinning and harvesting and we need to get the backlog cleared. Can the Minister take this up with the Cabinet and the Minister, Deputy McConalogue? It is a real crisis.

I thank Deputy Stanley. I certainly will. The Minister, Deputy McConalogue, and the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, are active on this issue. We are, as a Government, acutely aware of the issues with the licensing of forestry operations in Ireland. This is as a result of the Department having to make changes to the appropriate assessment procedure due to European Court of Justice and Irish law rulings relating to environmental regulation. We have very significantly increased the resources in the Department with more ecologists, forestry inspectors and additional administrative staff assigned to licensing but I will convey the points the Deputy has made to the Minister, Deputy McConalogue.

I wish to raise a pertinent issue regarding air traffic controllers. Many Members have received emails over the past week from air traffic controllers in Shannon, Cork and Dublin in which they outline a litany of industrial relations disputes they are having with the Irish Aviation Authority, IAA. There is an internal mechanism in the Irish Aviation Authority for handling disputes but most at this point agree that it will not be resolved there.

Given the IAA's strategic role in managing Irish airspace, including guiding aircraft in from the transatlantic routes, I ask that there be ministerial oversight and that, through the Department of Transport, we consider appointing an independent mediator to resolve this problem in everyone's interest.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is abreast of the situation. There are established dispute resolution mechanisms and the parties concerned should seek to avail of them. The issues fall to be addressed in the first instance by the board and executive of the IAA. The Government wants to see this dispute and any outstanding grievance resolved. The Minister will support the process in any way he can to bring that about.

I wish to raise the issue of car parking charges that are still in place for cancer patients at some hospitals. In May 2018, the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, called for a review of hospitals' car parking charges. It is my understanding that there has been no progress since then, but it is an issue that puts considerable stress on cancer patients and their families. At a time when they are already facing significant difficulties and challenges, families having to rush to the car park to move cars in order to avoid charges causes unnecessary stress. There is inconsistency in this.

We see the same inconsistency in the restrictions applied by maternity hospitals. Many hospitals have cruel and harsh restrictions. Women who are giving birth to babies are not allowed to have their partners with them.

The Deputy is straying. She can raise only one matter.

There is inconsistency in our hospitals.

I want to ask-----

No, please. Time is up, Deputy.

-----whether the Government will abolish car parking charges for cancer patients.

I acknowledge that car parking charges in hospitals can be a burden on people, sometimes at what is a vulnerable time for them. Practices vary around the country. Some hospitals are, I believe, accommodating and have systems in place for frequent visitors, family members and so on, but that is not uniform. The Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, is taking an interest in this issue and will revert to the Deputy directly on it.

Today, the National Competitiveness Council called for an increase in the pace of delivery of the national broadband plan, but the Government's plans to fast-track its delivery have been long-fingered. The Government has accepted the excuse that the roll-out is six months behind schedule due to disruptions caused by Covid-19. The programme's delivery is 50% behind schedule. This is at least in part due to the chequered engagement with public bodies, including some local authorities. The previous Government established the mobile phone and broadband task force to address these bottlenecks specifically. As a member of the then Cabinet, I chaired it. However, the task force has not met since the contract for the national broadband plan was signed. I want it re-established as a matter of urgency and chaired by a member of the Cabinet to show how serious this Government is about the delivery of this vital project.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue, which is one in which he takes a keen interest. One of the lessons for us all from Covid is the imperative of having good connectivity all over the country. The Government wants to see the national broadband plan implemented as quickly as possible and there has been ongoing engagement between the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and National Broadband Ireland in that regard. If there are opportunities to accelerate implementation, they will be taken. I will take up with the Minister directly the issue the Deputy has raised. I will support any effort to reduce delays and backlogs and to bring the implementation forward in any way we can.

In a month's time, Irish delegates will be sitting down with their international counterparts at the UN Conference of the Parties, COP26, in Glasgow to face what is the greatest global challenge of our generation. We will be sitting down with some countries that are emitting less than one tenth of the greenhouse gas emissions of developed countries like our own. Does the Minister expect the Irish climate action plan will be published before then and will we be making a contribution in solidarity with those countries that face much greater difficulties in addressing their development needs in a sustainable way?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I acknowledge the outstanding work that he has done in this area over a number of years. The Government will be represented by the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, at COP26. He is finalising the climate action plan, which is anticipated to be brought to the Government in October and published at that point. I will discuss with the Minister the points the Deputy made about developing countries, the challenges they face and what role Ireland can play as a country that is facing significant challenges itself but that has a plan and a committed government in terms of addressing the issues, building on work that has been done previously.

HSE representatives attended a meeting of the Joint Committee on Disability Matters in May to discuss the progressing disability services model. They stated that all 91 children's disabilities network teams were to be established by the end of quarter 2, that is, the end of June. We are now nearing the end of quarter 3 and they are not all established. How many of them have been established and what is the proposed date for getting the remainder up and running? In some of the teams that are up and running, there is an insufficient number of staff, low morale, with staff finding it difficult to cope, a constant turnover of staff and many children not receiving the therapies they require. Some children are being told they will have to wait two to three years for various therapies. At the committee meeting, we were also told this model would ensure that effective clinical teams would work in partnership with families, but many children are not receiving the early interventions they require and that are vital to their progression. Will the Minister provide an update on children's disabilities network teams?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue, which is important to many families. Of the 91 progressing disability services teams, 83 are fully reconfigured and I am advised that the remaining teams will be reconfigured by the end of November. As such, work is at an advanced stage.

I wish to point out the considerable work the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, has done and continues to do. She has made dramatic progress on waiting lists for assessments of need. Now, similar progress needs to be made on waiting lists for actual therapy intervention services, and she is deeply committed to doing that. In the context of the budget, I wil work lwith her to make further progress in that regard.

The crisis in University Hospital Kerry is becoming critical. Day procedures have been cancelled for the third week running, the hospital is short 100 nurses, orthopaedic services have been outsourced and ambulances are queuing up because the patients they are offloading are not being taken into the accident and emergency department. A scanning machine in the hospital can be used by only private patients. No wonder it is difficult to recruit surgeons for that hospital, given that they would be dealing with the most difficult of cases. In a county that is already disadvantaged by peripherality, a hospital that had to deal with an increased population of up to 500,000 during the summer will be stretched coming into the winter period. If University Hospital Kerry is to be downgraded, will the Government come out and say it or else will it intervene, provide the resources necessary for proper services, commit to a plan for re-establishing day procedures, as there seems to be none, and meet local representatives and consultants?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I confirm that there are no plans whatsoever to downgrade University Hospital Kerry. There are significant challenges there that the Deputy has rightly highlighted. The Ministers, Deputies Stephen Donnelly and Foley, are aware of them and have been working together and engaging with the HSE on resolving the problems. I am sure the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, would be happy to engage directly with Deputy Daly and other representatives on the matter.

Ten thousand children are home from school today, having been deemed close contacts. This stop-start approach to education is not working for children or schools. I will provide three examples. I have a constituent who was working from home until recently but who was refused that option when her son was deemed a close contact. Instead, she had to take annual leave to stay at home with her child, who received a negative test. I have another constituent whose daughter tested positive for Covid in February and is out of school today because her classmate tested positive.

In one school in my constituency, there were five positive cases spread across four classrooms, with siblings in additional classrooms, thus completely maximising the disruption. I understand we need protocols in place for schools and that children and their safety needs to be put to the fore, but the requirement on a student to restrict his or her movement for ten days and to then test negative before returning to the classroom only to be told again that he or she is a close contact and, thus, has to go through that cycle again causes too much disruption. Can we expect a change in these regulations?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. It is on the back of the significant progress we have made with Covid and the reduced infection levels that the CMO has provided updated advice to my colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly. The Minister is now engaging the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, who, in turn, is consulting the education partners in regard to this issue. The Government will make its decision and announcement in regard to any changes in due course.

I thank the Minister and all Deputies who submitted questions for adhering to the timeline. By way of information, I have decided that in future I will not select Deputies who do not adhere to the one-minute allocation because it is not fair to their colleagues who are coming after them.