Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

I remind Members that this is Questions on Promised Legislation and also on issues arising under the programme for government. I ask that we avoid statements. If Members choose to make comments across the floor, the time is running and it is one minute. I ask Members to stick to the issues. Táim ag cur tús leis an bpróiseas anois le Sinn Féin.

The Tánaiste will know that the Price report was published in July 2020 into the provision of gynaecology services at Letterkenny University Hospital. The publication of this report followed a determined campaign by patients and their families. My colleague, Deputy Doherty, raised with the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and with the Tánaiste last year the need for all recommendations from that report to be fully implemented and for an examination to see if the circumstances that arose at Letterkenny arose across the State. The Tánaiste will know that a HIQA report has been published today and it is deeply concerning for the women of Donegal on three different levels. First, governance has not been implemented, which is quite shocking considering the findings of the Price report. There just is not the oversight that is required. In terms of recruitment of staff nurses and so on-----

The Deputy should conclude.

Finally, there is the issue of outpatient services, which are at 50%. Will the Tánaiste intervene with the Minister to resolve this issue?

I thank the Deputy. I know this is a really important issue in Letterkenny and in Donegal.

Deputy Doherty has raised it with me before, as have Deputy McHugh and the Minister, Deputy McConalogue. I welcome the publication today of a targeted assurance review of the governance arrangements for gynaecology services in Letterkenny University Hospital. The report provides an important opportunity for an independent focus on the quality and safety of gynaecological services in Letterkenny for the women who avail of them. Since the publication of the Price report in August 2020, the HSE and the Saolta University Health Care Group have been working closely with Letterkenny hospital on a detailed plan to implement the report's recommendations to improve the quality and safety of gynaecology services in the hospital. Today's report recognises the substantial financial and staffing resources that have been made available to Letterkenny hospital and the Saolta University Health Care Group to implement the Price report.

One of the more well-received elements of this week's budget was the introduction of a youth travel card for 19- to 23-year-olds. In the Labour Party's alternative budget, we examined the options in this regard and opted for the provision of free travel for under-24s on the basis that there would be technical impediments to the delivery of a discount or youth card. At a meeting of the transport committee yesterday, I asked the Secretary General of the Department of Transport about those technical impediments. He stated that the Minister for Transport had come late with this particular proposal and officials were getting their thinking caps on to ensure it could be rolled out to as many under-24s as possible, but not all of them, and that there were issues in regard to sourcing the technology to deliver it. When does the Tánaiste expect the scheme to be operational and can he guarantee it will include all 19- to 23-year-olds, not just those living in the main urban conurbations?

I am sure there are technical complications, but I am equally sure they can be overcome. The plan is to introduce the scheme in 2022. I hope it will be in the earlier part of the year but I cannot guarantee that today because some of the details are being worked out. As far as I am aware, it applies to everyone aged between 19 and 23, not just those in urban areas. I am sure it can be done. We have travel passes for older people, student passes and scholar passes. I am sure it can be done but, obviously, the details will have to be worked out.

When it comes to the city of Dublin, who exactly is in control? Right now, there is a sense that the city is in decline and there is nobody at the wheel. The programme for Government makes provision for a directly elected mayor but the concern is that by the time it becomes a reality, it will be too late. If we are to be effective in preserving our culture and maintaining the aesthetic and essence of the city, so that we no longer lose buildings of significance and see our city decline, is it not time for an Oireachtas-led task force to ensure the future of the city in the most immediate sense? Nobody seems to be in control at this time.

There is a Government commitment to establish a citizens' convention on the appropriate model of local government for Dublin. It was supposed to be set up when the Citizens' Assembly on Gender Equality was finished. As the latter has now completed its work, I anticipate we will have the new convention set up quite soon. It will be very exciting to have that discussion about what local government should look like, not just in Dublin city but in the county as well.

In regard to the functions the Deputy mentioned, most of them are matters for Dublin City Council rather than the Government. I understand his party is part of the controlling group on that council.

The Tánaiste mentioned empathy earlier. Will his Government extend a bit of empathy to families that are in homeless accommodation for years on end? I raise this matter because I am currently dealing with two cases where there is a distinct lack of empathy being shown. As I understand it, this is at least significantly to do with Government policy. In one case, a family of eight, including a disabled mother, a father and six children, three of whom are in college, have been in homeless accommodation for six years. They are going to be evicted from the hotel they are in because the father briefly went over the income thresholds the Government promised but failed to raise. He has now lost his job but, because of the legislation, his family is going to be made homeless and he is not entitled, after six years in emergency accommodation, to the housing assistance payment. The other family, of two parents and four children, has been housed in multiple homeless accommodations over the past four years. The family is going to be thrown out of its current accommodation because it has to be refurbished.

Thank you, Deputy. We are over time.

What empathy will the Government show those families?

If the Deputy wants to provide me with the details of those cases later today or before the end of the week and give me permission to make representations on behalf of the families, which I need, I would be happy to look into them, check out what the story is and see whether there is any way we can help. Certainly, I do not think we could possibly have either of those families ending up on the streets or without accommodation. That would not be acceptable to anyone in this House. They are going to need help but I need their details. I will be happy to look into the matter.

I welcome the extension of the help-to-buy scheme but I would like the Tánaiste's comments on how it can be enhanced to include first-time buyers of any of the vacant properties that are splattered around every town and village in this country. We should give young people a chance to bring those homes back into use by extending to them the supports available under the help-to-buy scheme. It is a good scheme but this change needs to be made as a matter of urgency in order that we can start giving some hope to young people who want to buy their own home, especially around the regions, where there is a huge number of these vacant houses.

As the Deputy knows, the help-to-buy scheme, as it is currently constituted, is only for new-build properties, which include own-build homes, including in rural areas. It is designed to encourage the provision of more new builds that are affordable for first-time buyers. The suggestion has been made by the Deputy, as well as Deputy Griffin and others, that we should extend the scheme to cover vacant properties that are brought back into use. I think there is some sense in that. I see a lot of properties around the country that could be turned into homes and, potentially, we could use the help-to-buy scheme to encourage people to do exactly that. It would make sense from a climate point of view as well to reuse an existing building rather than building a new one. However, there is potentially an alternative way of doing it, which is through a grant system. We are looking at the two options at the moment and we hope to make a decision in the next couple of months.

I want to raise an issue that was brought to my attention in an email I got this morning from a school principal. The email states:

I'd like to draw your attention to the shortage of teachers crisis that the school has been experiencing over the past number of weeks. Neither my school or the joint school have been able to get a sub teacher for over three weeks. This has led to excessive disruption within the school. I currently have teachers out on sick leave. One of these sick leaves is being covered until mid-term but the teacher will no longer be available after that. I advertised a long-term subbing contract for 19 weeks to include allocated hours the school is owed and sick leave. However, I received no applications, even after extending the closing date. I currently have no cover for the other sick leave.

The principal goes on to say: "I contacted the helpline that Minister Foley stated should be made aware of these issues but the person on the line said that she does not deal with these types of issues."

Thank you, Deputy.

A serious crisis is building up, as noted by the Irish Primary Principals Network. We could have a case where children are sent home from class because schools cannot provide teachers.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. As she knows, the budget provides additional funding for more teachers, special needs assistants and special education teachers, as well as a reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio. That money has been allocated but it does not necessarily mean schools will be able to find people who are appropriately qualified. If the Deputy passes the details of this case on to me, I will make sure the Minister, Deputy Foley, gets them. I will ask that she perhaps contact the school directly to see whether there is anything we can do to help.

I ask Deputies for their co-operation as there are 13 more speakers to get through. Some Members are indicating that they wish to come in on another question. I remind them that there is a new system in place and they may not come in on another Member's question.

This week's budget included a lot of wins for women, including a €31 million healthcare package that will help to tackle period poverty and provide investment in sexual assault treatment and maternity services. The provision of free contraception for young women aged 17 to 25 is particularly progressive.

This idea was raised during the debate on the referendum on the eighth amendment. In that referendum in 2018 the people of Ireland had the opportunity to have their say on the issue of abortion loud and clear and yet today, metres from the Coombe hospital, a provocative 6 ft tall billboard is encouraging women to rethink abortion. This is a blatant attempt to cause upset, trauma and emotional turmoil. Back in August the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, confirmed his commitment to introducing legislation on safe access zones. Where is that legislation and will it deal with issues like these advertisements?

I would like to join the Deputy in welcoming the significant package for women's health contained in the budget, which includes real funding to implement the national maternity strategy. That is a strategy I was privileged to be part of drawing up when I was Minister for Health.

A new scheme providing free contraception to women aged 17 to 25 will be set up next year. It is a start and we will get it going. We may be able to extend it to women above 25 in future years but as is always the case with a scheme like this, it needs to be phased in and done right. The legislation on safe access zones is still promised and it is in the Minister's work plan. I do not have a date for it coming to the Cabinet yet but it is intended to be done and we can examine the possibility of containing some rules around advertising within that legislation. We ban advertising for tobacco, alcohol and so on in certain zones so perhaps we can do the same with this.

This has been an anti-rural Ireland budget with nothing for the fishing industry, little for the farmers and a carbon tax attack on the people of rural Ireland alone. One of the few shining lights in the budget was a 50% reduction in fares for students travelling on public transport but the devil is in the detail here too as it exempts those who are not on public service obligation routes. That means most of the people in rural Ireland will not benefit from the 50% reduction. The big winners among students as a result of this 50% decrease in travel costs will be those travelling on the Luas and DART. That is a great boost for those who live inside the Red Cow roundabout in Dublin. One bus operator in west Cork who does several runs a day from Skibbereen and Bantry to Cork tells me takes 70% of the students to Cork, many of whom cannot get accommodation and rather travel daily. This bus operator, like thousands more, cannot have his students avail of this 50% reduction in student travel costs. Can the Government immediately reverse this shocking attack on rural Ireland so that every student who uses public transport, whether they are from Clonakilty, Bandon or Kinsale, is treated the same as those students from Dublin and is entitled to this 50% reduction?

I will ask the Minister, Deputy Harris, to take a look at that. This is the first student grant increase in 11 years. Not only is there an increase in the grant but the budget is making the eligibility limits bigger so that more families qualify and there is a change around the distance. I am not across the exact detail of that but I will ask the Minister to see if there is anything we can do. It is designed to help students so we would not like to leave anyone out if we can include them.

It is travel. Do something about that.

A programme for Government commitment states that we will: "Immediately prioritise the drafting of legislation for the phasing out of fur-farming, publishing legislation in this area as soon as possible." In yesterday's budget, along with the welcome increase for ex gratia funding for the animal welfare organisations, I noticed a funding commitment to unwind fur-farming operations. That is right and appropriate if we are asking people to leave this practice behind; they should be funded appropriately in doing so. Can the Tánaiste clarify the amount of that funding and update the House on the progress of the legislation that has been promised?

The legislation to outlaw fur farming in Ireland is progressing and I understand it will be brought to the Cabinet by the end of this month or perhaps early next month with a view to getting it enacted in this House before the end of the year. There is provision for compensation for the farms that are being forced to close for obvious reasons. I do not have any more information on that but perhaps the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, can add to that.

That is effectively it. The legislation is close, funding provision has been made and that process will conclude in the near future.

I want to ask the Tánaiste about student nurses and midwives who are among the heroes we all commended over the last 19 to 20 months. I understand that an independent report has not only been commissioned but is sitting on the Minister for Health's desk and that report is looking at a permanent solution for fourth-year nurses. The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation demanded that their pay be restored to 80% of an entry-level staff nurse position and that for first-year, second-year and third-year nurses there would be a fair allowance and bursary put in place. That report needs to be published, the Government needs to act on its recommendations and a fair solution needs to be put in place for nurses and midwives. It was understood that would happen before the budget but it did not happen. It was then hoped it would be in the budget but it was not. When will this issue be dealt with once and for all?

I am afraid I do not have an update on that. I have not seen the report and it has not come to the Cabinet yet but I will make enquiries with the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and get back to the Deputy with a further answer later in the week.

The Northern Ireland planned healthcare scheme was put in place earlier this year to replace the EU cross-Border directive following Britain's exit from the European Union. The scheme and its predecessors enable large numbers of patients to access treatment and surgery, or both, in Northern Ireland, paid for by this State. These were typically patients on long hospital waiting lists. I understand the scheme is due to finish at the end of this year. Could an Tánaiste give me a categorical assurance that this scheme will continue beyond the end of 2021 on an administrative basis if the necessary legislation is not in place by that time? Access to spare hospital capacity in Northern Ireland is an important part of our healthcare delivery, particularly in orthopaedics and cataracts.

I confirm that is the intention of Government but we need primary legislation to put a new scheme on a statutory footing. If we cannot get that done in time we intend to continue the existing arrangements on an administrative basis if possible. I will ask the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to confirm that but that is my understanding of the position.

I feel obliged to raise the issue of primary medical certificate appeals which are resulting in significant delays and frustration for applicants who require adapted vehicles. Following a Supreme Court decision in June 2020, the Disabled Drivers Medical Board of Appeal was advised by the Department of Finance to suspend any planned appeal hearings until further notice pending legal advice. Unfortunately there is a considerable backlog of requests for appeals due to the suspension of appeal hearings since March 2020. I understand this backlog needs to be cleared before new appeal hearings are conducted and I have been advised this is likely to happen from June 2020 onwards. The Disabled Drivers Medical Board of Appeal is in discussion with the Department of Finance on the importance of a new scheme for disabled drivers and passengers. This must be urgently prioritised. I would appreciate if the Tánaiste could advise of any progress in accelerating the process as delays are having a negative impact on those waiting for their appeals.

This issue is ongoing. It has been going on for too long at this stage and is causing difficulties for a lot of people. Unfortunately I do not have an update on it but I will ask the Minister for Finance to talk directly to the Deputy and brief him on the state of play.

Will he share that with the House because that is something I have raised?

On page 52 of the programme for Government a promise is made to: "Publish a new Palliative Care Policy for adults by mid-2021 to update the 2001 policy." This will reflect the many developments in end-of-life care and international best practice and will better interact with children's palliative care. Is there any update on when this policy will be published? We are way past mid-2021.

I am afraid I do not know but I will ask the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to contact the Deputy directly on that. It is welcome that the budget made another specific allocation to hospice and palliative care, which will be welcomed by all of the House. That money will be paid before the end of the year.

Buried in Tuesday's budget documentation was an admission that the national broadband plan is running eight months behind schedule. That is two months more than the timeline presented to the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications by the contractor last month. It means that 75,000 fewer homes will have access to high-speed broadband at the end of next year than was originally planned when the contract was signed in November 2019. The yarn that was spun by the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications yesterday was that this was down to Covid delays.

However, the work was carried out outdoors and the contractors were designated as essential workers under the Covid level 5 rules. What exactly is going on and what is causing the delay?

There is a delay, unfortunately, but it is still anticipated that approximately 60,000 homes will be passed this year. Work is happening with the contractor to try to speed up and regain lost ground over the next couple of years. There were issues with Covid and delays in getting the necessary licences for poles and ducts from local authorities. National Broadband Ireland had difficulty in getting staff. Even though the staff in question were essential workers and allowed to work during the pandemic, I understand that quite a number were being recruited from overseas and issues like the travel restrictions made that difficult. The roll-out is behind schedule, but we still believe that approximately 60,000 houses will be passed this year. Work is under way to try to make up the lost ground in 2022 and 2023.

In the context of the full reopening on 22 October, the 43% increase in Covid cases over the past week and the fact that two thirds of new cases involve under-44s, and with less than 10% of the population driving 50% of hospital admissions and the majority of people who are admitted being unvaccinated, I will ask three questions.

First, with regard to the toolkit, Professor Mary Horgan is heading up an expert advisory group on rapid testing. Where is its report? We need to get rapid testing rolling. The Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications wants to see rapid antigen testing as part of the toolkit.

Second, 370,000 people are unvaccinated. Of those, 300,000 are adults who have not received any vaccine and 70,000 have not received a second dose. What are we doing as a public campaign to get them vaccinated?

We are over time, Deputy.

Third, will the Covid certificate be extended beyond 22 October?

We have not made any decision yet on the planned easing of restrictions on 22 October. We will do that during the early part of next week, probably on Monday or Tuesday. We will have more data and a better read on the epidemiological situation by then. However, no decisions have yet been made in that regard. We will have to consider matters as we see more data over the next few days.

The vaccine booster programme is progressing. We are waiting on advice from the national immunisation advisory committee, which I hope arrives soon, in respect of a wider booster programme. Israel, which saw a return of Delta, got its numbers down and under control again through an extensive booster programme. The case for something like that is stronger than ever.

I do not know when the rapid testing report is due but I will find out and revert to the Deputy.

Regarding people who are not vaccinated yet, vaccines are still available and vaccine centres are still open. It is a personal choice, but the truth is that, if everyone in Ireland was fully vaccinated, we would probably have approximately 25 people in ICU and 200 in hospital overall today, and there would be no question about easing restrictions on 22 October. It is a personal choice, but it has an impact on other people.

I wish to discuss the pension scheme of workers in CIÉ. A ballot was taken in June 2020 on changes to the regular wages scheme, a deal that would have seen modest increases in weekly pension incomes. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, stated last year and earlier this year that he would sign a statutory instrument to bring those increases for retired workers into effect. Will the Tánaiste confirm that the Minister will sign that statutory instrument?

I am afraid I cannot confirm that, but I will see the Minister this afternoon. I will let him know that the Deputy raised the matter and ask him to revert to the Deputy directly.

I wish to raise the issue of ambulances. There was a report in The Clare Herald this week about an ambulance that was sent from the Carraroe base in County Galway to an incident in Kilkee, two hours away. Luckily, an off-duty paramedic was there to help. There is a major shortage of ambulance drivers. Meanwhile, paramedics who are being trained in the University of Limerick are not accepted by the National Ambulance Service, NAS, and NAS personnel from County Clare were in Northern Ireland carrying out Covid testing. I readily accept that Covid poses a threat to health and life, but ambulances are sent to threats to health and life and we do not have enough ambulance drivers. The introduction of the European standard, under which an ambulance can only take one person instead of two, was never accompanied by an increase in the number of ambulances. The Tánaiste spent time in the Department of Health as Minister. What is being, and will be, done about this shortage of ambulances across the country? Ambulances are being deployed two or three hours from their bases because of the shortage.

There have been many changes to and real reforms of the NAS and its service model in recent years. The service works more like a fleet now than a series of bases. Often, the ambulance that is nearest to the person is the one that is sent regardless of the distance from the base.

The budget provides an additional €8.3 million for investment in the NAS. That will continue to develop and improve the service and also extend the hear and treat model, which is used successfully in other countries.

Sitting suspended at 1.06 p.m. and resumed at 1.46 p.m.