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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 28 Sep 2021

Vol. 1011 No. 6

Ceisteanna - Questions

Cabinet Committees

Alan Kelly


1. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education last met; and when it will next meet. [43261/21]

Gary Gannon


2. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education last met; and when it will next meet. [43759/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett


3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [43762/21]

Mick Barry


4. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee dealing with education last met. [43780/21]

Rose Conway-Walsh


5. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [43828/21]

Mary Lou McDonald


6. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [44742/21]

Cathal Crowe


7. Deputy Cathal Crowe asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education met last; and when it is next due to meet. [44817/21]

Rose Conway-Walsh


8. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [45152/21]

Pádraig O'Sullivan


9. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will meet next. [45990/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 9, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on education oversees implementation of the programme for Government commitments in the area of education, including preparing for post-Covid education. The Cabinet committee last met on 13 May and discussed topics including special education policy in schools and increased demand for places at third level in 2021 and 2022. I have regular engagement with Ministers at Cabinet and individually to discuss priority issues relating to their Departments. In addition, a number of meetings have been held between my officials and officials from relevant Departments since the establishment of the Cabinet committee in July 2020.

The Labour Party and I want to work with the Taoiseach and the Minister for Education on the issue of back-to-school costs. The Taoiseach will agree that this topic comes up every September and then goes away again. I am concerned that the book publisher, Folens, has now acquired the teacher training institution, Hibernia College. An educational book entity, which exists for commercial interests, is now effectively the largest provider of teachers for the education system. In Northern Ireland, schoolbooks are free; in the Republic, they are not. In fairness, two budgets ago the Taoiseach's Department introduced a scheme to provide 50 schools with free schoolbooks. This was then extended to 100 schools. Working with the Opposition, and with the best of goodwill, we could, for €20 million, which is not a large sum in the overall budget to be presented shortly, provide free schoolbooks for every child in the Republic, just as they are provided in Northern Ireland. Can we take away the conversations about money at the school gates and replace them with conversations about education? The Taoiseach will appreciate that far too many of the conversations teachers and principals have with parents are about money rather than education. I ask him to prioritise that issue in the budgetary cycle.

We will have to limit questioners to one minute each given the number of questioners.

Last week, I raised the issue of education with the Taoiseach under Questions on Promised Legislation and he assured me that his Government had moved heaven and earth to keep our schools open. I do not doubt his intention but we differ substantially with regard to our preferred approach, particularly in respect of mitigation. On Monday, close contact tracing for asymptomatic close contacts in primary schools ended. A clear explanation for this approach has not yet been given. I would like the Taoiseach to clearly state why that approach was taken now, as we approach winter. I will once again ask him to elaborate on the issue of air monitors in our schools. At the moment, a school with nine to 12 classrooms has seven air monitors while a school with 13 to 16 classrooms has nine. There are substantial issues regarding air filtration. In the absence of the antigen testing used in other European countries, will the Taoiseach elaborate on the end of contact tracing and the absence of mitigation actions that would have enhanced this measure?

I will return to the question I asked the Taoiseach earlier about Clonkeen College and the plan of the Edmund Rice Schools Trust and the Christian Brothers to sell off its playing pitches. He agreed with me that this is wrong and that it will deprive the school, the ASD unit, local community sports organisations and others who use these fields but he said that there was nothing he can do. I would like to point out that this issue was raised multiple times during the term of the previous Government and we had the same hand-wringing. The point is that there is much bigger precedent involved. These religious organisations own a vast number of our schools and hospitals. They are publicly funded, yet the Government says that it is completely powerless when they decide to flog off lands to property developers at the cost of local community and school facilities when there is a chronic shortage of land for schools in our area. There is a queue of schools looking for permanent sites and there is a chronic shortage of sports facilities in the area. There has to be something the Taoiseach can do.

In August, the Minister for Education provided a subject by subject breakdown of the changes she intended to make to leaving certificate 2022 by way of compensation to students for classroom teaching time lost as a result of the pandemic. A survey conducted by my office has since found that 82% of leaving certificate students who replied expressed the view that the proposed changes are insufficient. These students lost months of classroom teaching time as a result of the closure of their schools. The changes I would most like to see are the abolition of the leaving certificate alongside the introduction of a policy of open access to third level. The examination is unnecessarily stressful, it is out of date and it discriminates against students who are not neurotypical or who come from homes that cannot afford grinds. At the very least, these students should be given a far greater concession than that made by the Minister. They will be very interested to hear the Taoiseach's views on the matter.

As we speak, the independent economic evaluation carried out on behalf of the European Commission into the Cassells report is sitting on the desk of the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science.

The Cassells report was completed five years ago and laid out three options to address the chronic underfunding in third level. Earlier, the Taoiseach said third level investment was a key factor in attracting FDI and economic development, and I agree. Since the report, successive governments have avoided addressing the issue of underfunding at third level. In real terms, colleges get 50% less per student than in 2008 and, at the same time, fees have increased from €850 to €3,000. We have spent less on research and development as a percentage of GDP and of public expenditure every year since 2011. The Cassells report made clear in 2016 what action was needed and presented three options for how this could be funded.

The programme for Government states that, "A strong education system is the cornerstone of a thriving language", and commits to providing Gaelscoileanna agus Gaelcholáistí. This and successive governments have failed the parents, the children, more particularly, and the staff of Gaelscoil Choláiste Mhuire on Parnell Square East. These have been waiting for a permanent school building since the late 1990s. I can only describe what they have been through as an ongoing saga. The children and staff find themselves in completely inadequate accommodation.

The Department of Education and the State have played a game of blink and bluff with this school community. It is outrageous. There is provision for a new school build in Dominick Street. This has dragged on and on. The Department of Education tried to convince the school community and others that the fault for such delays lies with a neighbour, which is not the case. I appeal to the Taoiseach in the name of reason and fairness to intervene in respect of Gaelscoil Choláiste Mhuire.

I raise the issue of capacity for secondary school students in Shannon town. The Taoiseach visited one of the secondary schools there with me two years ago, namely, St. Caimin's Community School. The other school is Shannon comprehensive.

As we come out of Covid, there is a need for the post-primary buildings unit to take a comprehensive look at both schools. St. Caimin's was built with an enrolment capacity of 600. It is far exceeding that, yet Department officials fail to recognise the growth of the town and the wide hinterland it encompasses.

Shannon comprehensive is a much older school dating to the 1960s or 1970s, but some of the buildings are crumbling. I fear some of the concrete work may have pyrite in it. The buildings unit will urgently have to come to the town and look at the capacity it has and at the deficient buildings. There needs to be a comprehensive look at how this town, Ireland's newest town in the 1960s but now ageing, can meet its current needs. It needs an urgent re-examination.

I raise the issue of special education provision in Cork. The Taoiseach has a long history of delivering for special education provision as a previous Minister with responsibility for education. Cork City Council has identified a site in the Glanmire area that is suitable for a school for special education provision. I urge the Taoiseach, given we have such challenges in Cork, to look upon that site favourably and progress it as expeditiously as possible.

Why is the Government taking risks with children's health in our schools? Why is there no decision to have a CO2 monitor in every classroom? Why is there no decision to have high efficiency particulate air, HEPA, filters in classrooms? Why has the Government made the decision, which makes no sense to me whatsoever, to say something magical happens in a classroom which means the regular rules of contacts for Covid do not apply? If a child goes to a birthday party for half an hour with another child who has Covid, they count as a close contact and have to get tested. However, if they sit in a classroom in the same pod for a week with that same child, they do not count as a close contact. How does that make any sense?

There are a lot of questions there.

Yes. Some of them would be more appropriate, I would have thought, to the Minister for Education.

Sure, I am multitasking all the time. Deputy Ó Ríordáin raised the issue of free schoolbooks. I would need to talk more about this, to be honest. Targeting of resources is still very important in terms of children who need additional supports in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas. It is the old argument about universality of provision versus targeted provision to those who need it most and those on the lowest incomes. Given the multiple needs in our education system, I have no issue with increasing the number of schools but there is value in staying around the thresholds and looking after children on other fronts in terms of the variety of supports required, from therapies right across. I am open to engagement on it.

Deputy Gannon raised contact tracing, as did Deputy Paul Murphy. Public health advice is saying this; Government is not making this up. The clear explanation relates to the testing that has been done. There are relatively low levels in terms of schoolchildren, at around 6%. Public health has advised and the Minister and Department of Education have adhered to public health advice all along in respect of classrooms of children. We are not risking children's health in any actions we take.

On air monitors, that arose from a special advisory group that advised the Department of Education on ventilation in schools and the use of air monitors. They are not static; they are mobile. It is about having up to 25,000 air monitors provided to the system, which is significant, as part of the broader return to school protocols.

To Deputy Boyd Barrett, I have given my views already on Clonkeen College. The Government has a lien on properties and physical buildings in respect of investments made in voluntary secondary schools.

Deputy Barry raised the issue of the abolition of the leaving certificate. I do not agree with abolishing it overnight. I believe in reform of it. There has been ongoing reform which has dramatically changed it. The leaving cert we sat 20 years ago bears no comparison with the leaving cert today.

Forty years ago. Excuse me, Taoiseach.

I was just testing Deputy Lahart. He is alert.

Did you do honours maths?

Deputy Conway-Walsh spoke on open access to college. She needs to think that through. I do not agree with it. It would create mayhem overnight. We do not have the capacity to do that, nor is it necessarily the right thing to do. We need to have a wide provision over time so people can access courses, modules and so on to take the urgency out of the leaving cert and to remove the idea that it is the be-all and end-all. We need to create a roadmap for young people so there is a route to where they want to go, through a variety of colleges of further and higher education and modular-based education. That is the approach we need.

I met with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science recently on the Cassells report. It has been given active consideration by the Minister and he is engaging with other Ministers on how we roll that out and deal with it. There are Estimates and budgetary contexts to that.

On Gaelscoil Choláiste Mhuire, I do not believe it is because of the Government or the Department of Education over the past 20-odd years. Twenty is on my mind today. It is not all blink and bluff. There were genuine issues there. I will ask for the report on that from the Department's building unit and come back to the Deputy on it.

Two decades for kids in those communities.

On Deputy Crowe's point, I am not sure whether the schools have applied to the Department, but he should engage with the Minister for Education. He has made a fair point on the broader issue in the town and the two schools needing expansion or a new plan for post-primary provision in Shannon.

I will work with Deputy O'Sullivan. We have already opened two new special schools this year, one in Cork and one in, I think, Dublin West. Sites are crucial. The city council has made a site available and we should push hard with the Minister for Education to acquire that site for another special school.

We have to move on.

Cabinet Committees

Alan Kelly


10. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing last met; and when it will next meet. [43262/21]

Cian O'Callaghan


11. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing last met. [43652/21]

Cian O'Callaghan


12. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach the role his Department will play in monitoring and implementing the Housing for All plan. [43653/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett


13. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing will next meet. [43761/21]

Paul Murphy


14. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing will next meet. [43764/21]

Bríd Smith


15. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing will next meet. [43767/21]

Mick Barry


16. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing last met. [43782/21]

John Lahart


17. Deputy John Lahart asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing last met; and when it is next due to meet. [43816/21]

Mary Lou McDonald


18. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the unit to be established in his Department with responsibility for ongoing monitoring and oversight of implementation of the Housing for All plan. [44741/21]

Rose Conway-Walsh


19. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing last met; and when it will next meet. [44854/21]

Paul McAuliffe


20. Deputy Paul McAuliffe asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing will meet next. [44857/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 to 20, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on housing has met seven times to date in 2021, most recently on Monday, 30 August. The next Cabinet committee on housing is yet to be scheduled. The committee works to ensure a co-ordinated approach to the delivery of programme for Government commitments regarding housing and related matters.

The focus of recent meetings has been on the completion of the Housing for All plan, which the Government published on 2 September. Housing for All builds on much progress and hard work in recent years, despite the setbacks due to Covid-19. It is the most ambitious housing plan in the history of our State and contains a range of actions and measures to ensure more than 300,000 new homes will be built by 2030. This figure includes 90,000 social, 36,000 affordable purchase and 18,000 cost rental homes.

Crucially, the actions outlined in the plan are backed by more than €4 billion in annual guaranteed State investment in housing over the coming years, including through Exchequer funding and Land Development Agency and Housing Finance Agency investment. The plan includes measures to support availability of the land, workforce, funding and capacity to enable both the public and private sectors to meet the targets.

Through Housing for All, we will also continue to support our most vulnerable, including those experiencing homelessness and those who have more complex housing needs. The plan will provide the basis for a long-term sustainable housing system for this and future generations and supports the ambitions of the forthcoming climate action plan through measures on retrofitting and waste reduction.

There will be a strong focus on implementation of the Housing for All plan. A delivery group of Secretaries General will oversee delivery, and a unit in my Department will prepare quarterly progress reports on implementation of the plan. This will set out performance against the targets and actions in the plan in a clear and comprehensible way.

We need a moratorium on evictions and a three-year rent freeze. Last week the Government did not oppose the Labour Party's renters' rights Bill, proposed by Senator Moynihan and Deputy Bacik, but there does not seem to be any enthusiasm to change quickly the Government's policy or the law. We know from statistics that the main reasons for terminating a tenancy are the sale of the property, which accounts for 51% of reasons given, or the use of the home for a relative, which accounts for 24%. Our Bill would restrict evictions for these reasons and ensure families are protected. Will the Taoiseach work with the Opposition to bring forward to fruition and to enact the Labour Party's Bill? Will he commit to a three-year rent freeze?

In the previous election Fianna Fáil promised to build 10,000 affordable homes each year it is in office. These homes are nowhere to be seen. Since the Government has taken office, house prices have increased by more than 10%. In Housing for All the Government commits to giving about €1 billion in subsidies to developers. The Central Bank and the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, have both warned against these subsidies, which will push up house prices. Will the Government scrap these subsidies for developers, which will turbocharge house price increases, and instead use this funding to build affordable homes?

The people of Berlin have shown the sort of imagination that both the German Government and successive Irish governments distinctly lack when it comes to dealing with the housing crisis. Fed up with and sick of the lack of tenants' rights and completely extortionate rents, the people of Berlin, driven by a campaign from below, have made exactly the right call, which is to expropriate the big corporate landlords and the big investment funds and to take into public ownership the big portfolios of residential apartment and housing property to deliver controlled rents. That is a measure we should take here. We were alone in saying that pinning rent increases to the consumer price index, CPI, for example, would not be good enough and that we need actual rent controls. The people of Berlin are saying they need rent controls-----

Thank you, Deputy. Your time is up. Please leave some time for your colleagues.

-----to the extent that the state should actually take control. Why do we not follow the lead-----

Please, will you leave time for your colleagues?

-----the people in Berlin have given in a referendum?

The Government has said the strategic housing development, SHD, regime will be closed from February. The question is what the Government will do for those living with the consequences of that regime, a regime which effectively allowed the profits of the developers to be expedited and allowed the developers to bypass the regular planning process and the communities that have to live with the consequences of that. I will give the Taoiseach the example of Citywest, which has seen huge-scale development of largely build-to-rent apartments in a very short space of time with no investment in necessary community infrastructure - no library, no community centre, no investment in parks. What will be done to ensure those people in Citywest and in similar communities throughout the country have the community facilities that are needed to live quality lives, given the scale of development that has taken place in the context of SHDs being used?

The average price of a house rose by €24,000 last year - good news for those who own four homes but bad news for young workers. That is more than a year's salary for very many of them. The average price of a house in Cork city is now €307,000 - in other words, more than 12 times the annual salary of those young workers. Throughout the State, 42,600 mortgage approvals were granted in the year to June, yet only 31,300 drawdowns were made in the same period. These statistics seem to suggest that more than a quarter of those approved for mortgages were priced out of the housing market. Does the Taoiseach accept the housing market is treating young people in a viciously unfair fashion? Does he accept his Government will lose a hell of a lot of support among young people if these issues are not resolved very quickly?

I congratulate the Taoiseach on the Bloomberg report today which states Ireland is the best place to be at this stage in the pandemic. That is down to a significant degree to his stewardship of the Government during this period, and that should be acknowledged.

We are familiar with social housing lists. Every county or administrative area in the country has them. In the context of the Cabinet subcommittee on housing, will the Taoiseach consider establishing some kind of affordable housing list structure in order that the younger end of the population in particular can get a visual over time as to what sites will produce affordable housing, where they will be available, in what number and by what date, giving a tangible picture of the affordable housing roll-out that is coming downstream?

Following a meeting last April with the developer Hammerson, the Taoiseach took the extraordinary step of providing an endorsement quote for Hammerson's press statement when that developer announced submission of its Moore Street planning application to Dublin City Council. The Taoiseach may have welcomed its plan; however, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage did not. In fact, officials were and are deeply critical of Hammerson's planning application in their observations submitted to the council. In addition to their criticism of the extent of the demolition of the two terraces, they have described the demolition of No. 38 Henry Street as unnecessary and pushed for the retention of the historically important post-1916 buildings on Moore Street and Henry Street. Critically, the Department recommends that the council should consider whether an alternative design for the redevelopment of this site would allow for the retention and sensitive adaptation for use of these existing structures. Such an alternative design exists. The 1916 relatives' master plan for Moore Street-----

Your time is up, Deputy.

-----meets the historical, social, economic and sustainability thresholds set by the Department and the elected Members of this House and of Dublin City Council. I ask the Taoiseach to make a commitment today that he will meet with the relatives and their architect to hear and see at first hand the remarkable, appropriate plans they have developed for this site.

I wish to bring to the Taoiseach's attention the Rebuilding Ireland home loan and the anomaly in the scheme for people who have been divorced or separated or who are with long-term partners. They need to be considered in any reform. Under the current Rebuilding Ireland home loan there are technical exemptions from the first-time buyer clause for people have gone through a separation. However, this information is not being shared properly with people making applications. People are being refused despite actually qualifying in some local authority areas.

A separated person who has enough for a deposit from the sale of the family home but is refused a mortgage from financial institutions is then being refused assistance by the local authority and has nowhere to go. People in that situation, who often have children, are being driven into the private rental sector, where they are at the mercy of landlords and real estate investment funds. Families are often left in this very difficult situation with nowhere to go. Will the Taoiseach discuss this with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage with a view to including people who have suffered family breakdown in the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme?

I imagine the housing subcommittee will have an opportunity to examine the some 20 public housing sites in Ballymun that will avail of Housing for All finally to deliver public housing on public land for people who want to rent affordably or purchase or otherwise avail of social housing. Key to housing is infrastructure and, unfortunately, there has been significant doubt around the metro project in recent weeks. Last week, I asked the Tánaiste whether the Government had made a decision strategically to delay the project. I ask the Taoiseach to state again that the Government has not made, and will not make, a decision strategically to delay the project and that, if project delays have arisen with the National Transport Authority, NTA, and Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, they will be identified and minimised where possible.

I thank all the Deputies who put questions to me in respect of housing issues. I will first deal with rents generally, which covers a number of the questions. On the issue of a rent freeze, the Government has been advised in the strongest possible manner that it is unconstitutional to introduce a three-year freeze. I remember years ago, before an election, Opposition Members put forward a proposal for a commercial freeze. Subsequently, when people got into government, they could not do it because they were told it was unconstitutional. That was a previous government. It is easy to say things in opposition but, in this case, we are being told it is not possible.

The Minister is very committed to controlling rent price increases. There was the outgoing situation in July, at which time rent pressure zones, RPZs, were extended until the end of 2024 to prohibit any rent increase in an RPZ from exceeding general inflation, as recorded by the harmonised index of consumer prices, HICP. That measure significantly reduces the level of permissible rent increases for the estimated 74% of all tenancies that are in RPZs. In addition, until 2025, rent reviews outside RPZs may occur no more frequently than biannually and it remains the position that increases in RPZs can occur no more frequently than annually.

Housing for All commits to strengthening security of tenure, which was raised by Deputies, subject to legal advice, by legislating for tenancies of indefinite duration. Work in this area is under way. There has been increased funding for the housing assistance payment, HAP, to support new tenancies. An additional €2 million has been provided on top of what was there for the operational costs of the Residential Tenancies Board, bringing its funding to €11 million. A total of €10 million was allocated for the rental inspections programme for 2021 to assist local authorities to achieve inspection targets in respect of private rented accommodation. Since 16 July, the previous cap of 4% on annual rent increases was replaced, and rents on RPZs can only go up if necessary and in line with general inflation. As part of rent reform legislation due to be brought before the Oireachtas this session, the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, will seek to ensure effective rent controls are legally enforced in RPZs by introducing a cap.

As I said, rents in RPZs will only go up, if necessary, in line with the general inflation as recorded in the harmonised index of consumer prices to a maximum cap that is yet to be determined. In essence, we want to do everything we possibly can to keep rents down to the lowest level possible. When the Minister brought in the harmonised index element, it was done in good faith. Obviously, international commodity prices have gone through the roof since then and there is a general global inflation drive that now means the provision has to be reviewed to see whether we can get a realistic cap to keep the levels of rent increases down. Prices are very high - too high for people - in cities. Ultimately, it is a matter of supply. We have to get building supply up. We must build more houses, including affordable houses, houses for rent and social housing, to take pressure off the HAP system and the private sector system and give people proper security of tenure in social housing. Progress has been made this year, notwithstanding the lockdown. The sector is coming back strongly in terms of commencements and so forth, but we will wait and see until the end of the year to get the figures in respect of that.

Deputy Lahart made a very good suggestion in respect of the need for a transparent, tangible picture of the affordability landscape for people who wish to buy a house, so that they have some sense of what is happening over time. That is a very fair point.

In terms of strategic development zones, which Deputy Murphy raised, the Minister is moving on the issue of their expiration and making sure the right amenities are put in place in largely built-up areas. That is ongoing work and significant capital funding has been allocated to local authorities to facilitate the provision of such amenities in large housing conurbations. The money is there.

In terms of the Hammerson development on O'Connell Street, the problem in that regard has been going on for decades. At the moment, it is terrible in terms of the dereliction that is there. The Government moved to secure the national monument by buying it. There is always a balance to be struck in these situations. I have no interest in going back ten or 20 years. We need to transform O'Connell Street and make it a modern, thriving street in a modern city like Dublin and give opportunities for people while also bringing to the fore as part of that, which has never really happened, the incredible heritage the 1916 site represents. There are opportunities now but we cannot keep putting it on the long finger. I regret to say this to Deputy McDonald but I get the sense there is a huge element of politics in this. I get the terrible sense that here is another campaign to undermine what is being done. Many people were involved in this-----

You are being completely paranoid about it.

I am not paranoid at all about it. What I will say is that a lot of people across this House were involved in trying to bring this to a conclusion, along with a lot of people, across the party divides, in the council.

It has not been brought to a conclusion.

Many people worked to get the project to where it is at now. If we go back again, there is no guarantee of a conclusion. It could take another ten to 15 years. That is a realistic perspective on it.

The key issue Deputy Conway-Walsh raised in terms of the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme is provided for, as I understand it, in terms of people who are divorced or separated. I will come back to the Deputy on it but my understanding is that they will have access, as they should, to the loans.

Deputy McAuliffe raised a key issue regarding the metro project. I think the Minister, Deputy Ryan, was misinterpreted in what he said. He was trying to give a realistic timeline as to what will happen with the metro given what we know about large infrastructural projects in terms of planning, compulsory purchase orders and all the rest of it.

We need to move on.

There is a commitment to doing it.

We have used up two minutes of the time allocated for the next group of questions, leaving 13 minutes.

Cabinet Committees

Alan Kelly


21. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health last met; and when it will next meet. [43263/21]

Mary Lou McDonald


22. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health will next meet. [43523/21]

John Lahart


23. Deputy John Lahart asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health last met; and when it is next due to meet. [43815/21]

Cathal Crowe


24. Deputy Cathal Crowe asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health will meet next. [44818/21]

Mick Barry


25. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health will next meet. [44872/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett


26. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health will next meet. [45087/21]

Paul Murphy


27. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health will next meet. [45090/21]

Gino Kenny


28. Deputy Gino Kenny asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health will next meet. [46416/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 21 to 28, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on health oversees implementation of programme for Government commitments in regard to health, receives detailed reports on identified policy areas, and considers the implementation of health reforms, including Sláintecare. The committee last met on Monday, 14 December and is expected to meet again shortly. Since then, there have been 13 meetings of the Cabinet committee on Covid-19.

In addition to the meetings of the full Cabinet and of Cabinet committees, I meet with Ministers individually to focus on different issues. I meet regularly with the Minister for Health and his Secretary General to discuss priorities in the area of health, including Sláintecare and, in particular, our management of and response to Covid-19.

I am delighted to get an opportunity to ask about an issue that falls under the remit of the Taoiseach's Department. The programme for Government includes a commitment to a citizens' assembly on the issue of drugs. As he knows, many people are working on a campaign for the decriminalisation of the drug user. I do not want the word "decriminalisation" in this context to be confused with the idea of decriminalisation or legalisation of drugs. We are talking about the decriminalisation of drug users. The objective is that people who use drugs or have an addiction should not be pushed through the criminal justice system and should be helped, supported and empowered purely through the health system. When is the promised citizens' assembly on drugs, which falls under the Taoiseach's Department, going to happen?

Earlier this year, the Taoiseach confirmed with Carmona School in Glenageary that its dedicated on-site therapy supports would be retained. The school has 37 children with profound or severe intellectual disabilities.

In May, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, informed the HSE that services at Carmona were to remain at pre-Covid levels, provided by clinicians of the same grade and skill set specialisations, and, specifically, that the clinicians were to be based on site. That was confirmed in June during a meeting with parents at the school. It had been accepted by the Minister and the Taoiseach that the HSE's reconfiguration of children's disability services into children's disability network teams under the progressing disability services programme had to include the retention of on-site clinicians where needed but, despite these commitments and the specific instructions of the Minister of State to the HSE regarding Carmona, the HSE has now withdrawn all on-site therapists from the school. This decision has profound implications for the children in question. None of the children have been seen by a physiotherapist since June. The occupational therapist is no longer based on site and there is no speech and language therapist. The clinicians who attend are based out of the HSE office in Leopardstown.

Thank you, Deputy.

I urge the Taoiseach to engage with the Minister for Health and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, as a matter of urgency and to rectify this situation.

I am hesitant to interrupt Deputies-----

It is desperate that one has to gallop through the question.

-----but there are a large number of contributors to get through.

I point out to the Deputy opposite that we are all desperate for answers. Nobody has a monopoly on desperation or the need for information.

Does the Taoiseach have any news for the House regarding extra hospital beds coming into the system, assessments of needs of teenagers and young children in particular under the Disability Act, or home help waiting lists, which are, obviously, very much always on our radar on this side of the House? If he has an update for the House on any of those issues, I would appreciate it.

This morning, we got the horrific news that Cork University Maternity Hospital sent organs and tissue of 18 deceased babies to Belgium for incineration without the knowledge or consent of the parents of the babies. The State has an ugly history on this issue but we thought that chapter had ended. Twelve years ago, the Willis report recommended and the State accepted that the incineration of babies' organs and tissue should cease but here we are again. We have learned that senior management apparently disagreed with senior medical staff and argued that this was not a serious matter. The backdrop to this decision was the spectre of the pandemic but that does not excuse the inexcusable. The pandemic loomed over every Irish hospital. The Taoiseach indicated earlier that all hospitals have been written to in order to ascertain whether something similar happened on those sites. When are replies to those queries expected? I hope the investigation is thorough and concludes reasonably quickly.

Thank you, Deputy.

I hope the senior managers who let this happen are made to understand that it is a very serious matter. It might be necessary for some powerful people to pay a price in order to ensure this never happens again.

I wish to raise an urgent matter. This Friday, several hundred patients will lose their GP in the Monkstown Farm area of Dún Laoghaire because there is a rule, of which I was previously unaware, that GPs are compulsorily retired when they reach the age of 72, even if that retirement is against their will, as it is in this case. They wish to continue serving their patients but are no longer allowed to do so. Many of these patients who have mobility problems, chronic illnesses and so on will now have to travel long distances and most of them have not even been told what new GP service will be available. The doctor in question can continue in private practice but can no longer provide for his General Medical Service, GMS, medical card patients. I have appealed to the Department of Health to provide an extension for this doctor, which is what he wants. His patients want him to have an extension. The Department is just saying "No" because the rule is that GPs have to retire at 72 even though there is no rationale for it.

Thank you, Deputy.

Apparently, at least six exceptions to this rule have been made around the country, as I found out from the reply to a parliamentary question.

We have two more speakers.

Can the Taoiseach intervene to ensure that hundreds of people do not lose their GP because of this ridiculous and arbitrary rule?

More than four years ago, Sláintecare promised "a universal single tier service where patients are treated on the basis of health need rather than on ability to pay". Where are we today? We have a further embedded and deeply unequal two-tier system, the weaknesses of which were badly exposed by the pandemic. There are almost 1 million people on hospital waiting lists. Hospital staff are overworked and underpaid and significant amounts of public money are ending up in the private healthcare system through, for example, the National Treatment Purchase Fund. There were the resignations of Laura Magahy and Tom Keane from the Sláintecare implementation advisory council and that of Professor Geraldine McCarthy, chair of the board of the South/Southwest Hospital Group. In her resignation letter, she wrote:

I have waited for a long time for developments led by successive ministers for health and government. However, recent information and my own experiences tell me we are no nearer to the required reform than we were six years ago.

Is the Government actually committed to what is in Sláintecare or is it just politically expedient to say it agrees with it?

The University of Limerick offers a fabulous paramedic degree course and has done so for several years. The course has many positive attributes but one of the negatives is that the students need to go to Liverpool to complete part of their training. In many cases, that leads to brain drain, with people qualifying from the University of Limerick and remaining in Britain to work out their professional lives. Covid has taught us that we need to increase our capacity in all forms of front-line healthcare. I ask the Taoiseach to consider the brand new Civil Defence facility in Ennis which has fabulous lecture halls and the capacity to deliver this form of training in Ireland. I ask him to push for a partnership between the University of Limerick and Ennis. Limerick Institute of Technology will gain technological university status on Friday. Ennis could have a very positive link with the University of Limerick and solve the brain drain problem of paramedics leaving the country.

On the final point, I do not know what the circumstances are that necessitate the travel from Limerick. It must be regulatory or relate to a particular aspect of the education programme. We are open to any submissions from the University of Limerick in respect of having that completed here or a liaison with the technological university. That is something we are open to having pursued.

Deputy Paul Murphy raised the issue of health needs and Sláintecare. I will simply say that a lot of progress has been made. Deputy Lahart raised the issue of extra hospital beds, for example. In the context of the generality of debate that has ensued, there are approximately 800 additional hospital beds this year. That is the largest number of new hospital beds opened in a single year for many decades. That is the level of State investment in the State system that is now occurring.

On the issue of home helps, approximately 5 million additional hours were provided for in the budget. The waiting list last year was approximately 7,250 people. Now there are approximately 1,307 people waiting for home helps. The next stage has to be to try to get more people into that workforce. We have to look at work permits and facilitating people coming into the country to work in our health sector, as well as training up and skilling up people in the home care health sector, which is growing and will continue to grow. We do not want waiting lists in that area because it is very connected to the acute hospital system. The Minister will be establishing a task force shortly and announcing a waiting list initiative which will again concentrate on a further level of expansion of acute hospital beds, including intensive care beds, but also the whole area of elective care facilities and ambulatory care facilities. The Minister is close to bringing proposals to the Government in respect of ambulatory care in Cork, Galway and Dublin and additional electives that will be required as part of the Sláintecare programme. That is more medium term in terms of obviously giving us the capacity to do the electives. That relates to the waiting lists.

I met with Tom Keane and Laura Magahy yesterday. Deputy Murphy raised that issue. Their issues relate more to structural factors. In fact, they would acknowledge that a significant amount of progress has been made on many fronts in terms of activity levels, but there is a fundamental structural issue from their perspective in terms of the role of the office within the Department of Health vis-à-vis the HSE. That is something the Government and I will reflect on in terms of the structural approach to implementing Sláintecare but the Government remains very committed to the implementation of the principles of Sláintecare right across the board and in all aspects.

Deputy Barry raised the issue of the Willis report.

I dealt with that earlier in terms of organ retention. With regard to reviews on the way within the hospital that are required, the practice was not in accordance with the guidelines, rules and regulations laid out by the HSE itself in respect of the retention of organs, and particularly in respect of post mortems and the need to have the full consent of the parents in terms of what happens after the post mortem and the return of the organs to the parents for burial or cremation. That did not happen on this occasion. As I said earlier, the Minister is seeking assurances that this was not a practice across other hospital sites during the pandemic. He has not received a response yet, but is hoping to receive one.

Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the issue of the Monkstown situation. I will talk to the Minister for Health in relation to that. It could be a medical council issue or a regulatory issue. That would be my own observation.

It is just arbitrary.

My view is that if there is no alternative and the 72-year-old is hale and hearty, then common sense should prevail and provision should be made for it.

In terms of a citizens' assembly on drugs, I will come back to the Deputy on that, because now that we are coming out of Covid, we might be in a position to accelerate that. We said we would identify three areas for citizens' assemblies. One was the mayoral situation in Dublin and another was drugs. I take the Deputy's point about the decriminalisation of drug users. It is well made. The point that this is fundamentally a health issue as opposed to a justice issue is also well made.

I will come back to the Deputy on the timelines around that.

On Deputy McDonald's point about the progressing disability services programme, I will talk to the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, about what is essentially a real difficulty in the context of the programme. Resources are being taken out of existing special schools and then they are told that they should access those resources through a central provision. That is causing undue stresses and strains. It is not something I agree with.

We are well over time.

I have made that clear to the HSE.