Ceisteanna - Questions

Covid-19 Pandemic

Dara Calleary


1. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Covid-19 met last; and when it is next due to meet. [43743/21]

Alan Kelly


2. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Covid-19 last met and will next meet. [44761/21]

Mary Lou McDonald


3. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Covid-19 will next meet. [47861/21]

Jennifer Murnane O'Connor


4. Deputy Jennifer Murnane O'Connor asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Covid-19 last met; and when it is next due to meet. [47909/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett


5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Covid-19 last met and will next meet. [47961/21]

Paul Murphy


6. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Covid-19 last met and will next meet. [47964/21]

Mick Barry


7. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Covid-19 met last; and when it is next due to meet. [47972/21]

Mick Barry


8. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Covid-19 met last; and when it is next due to meet. [50875/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 8, inclusive, together.

Since the start of the pandemic, the Cabinet committee on Covid-19 had been assessing the social and economic impacts of Covid-19 and overseeing the cross-Government response. The committee met most recently on Monday, 30 August. The committee will meet again next week. On 31 August, the Government published the statement, Covid-19: Reframing the Challenge, Continuing our Recovery and Reconnecting. Since 1 September, we have continued our careful and gradual approach to reopening, while supporting maximum reach of the vaccine programme and allowing time to achieve the full benefits for all those currently being vaccinated. The plan included a proposed transition in our approach to public health management of the disease from 22 October, subject to vaccination levels and the incidents and behaviour of the disease at the time. The National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, met on Monday evening and provided advice to Government. Given the urgency of the matter and the time available, this advice was considered by the Cabinet committee on Government co-ordination on Monday evening, in advance of discussion and decisions being taken by the full Cabinet yesterday morning.

At that meeting, continuing with a cautious approach, the Government agreed that the remaining aspects of the hospitality, entertainment and night-time economy sectors can re-open, with the full range of protective measures in place and the wide and robust implementation of the Covid-19 pass, in light of the high level of disease in the community at this point in time and the uncertain trajectory of the disease. Protective measures include requirement for Covid-19 pass, vaccine or recovery certificate for indoor hospitality and events, social distancing and the wearing of face masks as appropriate. Masks can be removed obviously for alcohol consumption or food consumption. There is table service only in hospitality settings, with a maximum of ten adults per table and a maximum of 15 including children, as well as collection of contact tracing data. Event-specific sectoral guidance will issue for indoor live music and drama, live entertainment and sporting events. Specific sectoral guidance on night clubs will issue, setting out appropriate protective measures. This will include Covid-19 passes, contact tracing data collection, amongst other measures. Covid-19 passes and fixed capacity limits will not apply for outdoor events. However, sectors should ensure appropriate protective measures are in place.

Organisers of indoor and outdoor group activities should ensure that appropriate protective measures are in place and, where indoor groups have a mix of vaccinated and non-vaccinated people indoors, pods of six should apply. Fixed capacity limits will not apply to those indoor and outdoor group activities. Religious services and weddings can proceed without capacity limits but with all other protective measures remaining in place. Return to workplaces will continue on a phased and cautious basis for specific business requirements. Sector-specific guidance and protocols including with regard to work, hospitality, culture and sporting events will be reviewed and strengthened where appropriate. Compliance activities will be reinforced by relevant bodies and through wider public and stakeholder communications. The meeting with the regulators' forum will be convened to discuss further with relevant Departments and agencies.

The six speakers have one minute each. I ask that they comply with the time constraints, if they want a reply at the end, as the Taoiseach will have very little time. I call Deputy Calleary.

I am surprised the committee has not been meeting more often considering where we are at. That said, is it working with the Cabinet health committee in relation to the issues with Covid-19 care and their impact on non-Covid-19 care, particularly in the days and weeks ahead? Second, has any decision been taken on the recognition for front-line workers and healthcare workers, in terms of a payment or the proposed bank holiday?

The Taoiseach might inform us as to when those sector-specific guidelines will be agreed and when the concerns and the confusion of those engaged in the night-time economy will be addressed, in order that their minds can be put to rest. I want to also raise with the Taoiseach the Owenacurra Centre in Midleton, County Cork, which closed its short-term respite and mental health day care services throughout the pandemic. In June, families of long-term patients learned that the HSE intends to permanently close the facility under the guise of inspection reports undertaken by the Mental Health Commission. To be clear, the commission has not called for the closure of Owenacurra. Rather, it has reported urgent action and that investment is needed to make the centre safe. This is not some antiquated 19th-century building. It was built in the 1960s. It requires modernisation after years of under-investment. My time is limited, but I ask the Taoiseach to act on that.

We do not offer antigen testing, which is unfair to those who cannot get a vaccine. The simple application of an antigen test would solve this. Is this being considered at all? Antigen testing is being considered for close contacts. How will this work? Will people have to apply? Who do they apply to? Why can we not give antigen tests freely, maybe to test centres, in order that people who need them can acquire them? Another area of confusion concerns the booster programme. While I welcome the programme, I have had many queries about it. Some GPs locally tell me they cannot administer it. There do not seem to be guidelines on what to do or where to go to access it.

My last question is on ventilation. What are schools meant to do when they have exhausted all recommendations and the CO2 monitors the Department supplied to them are still recording inadequate levels? Some schools in Carlow contacted me on this. It is worrying because the figures have risen so much again. Ventilation seems to be one of the biggest issues going forward. I ask that the Taoiseach address this and come back to me. We need to support people, businesses and individuals who are trying to recover. As we have asked a lot of the Irish people, we need to help them to protect themselves.

Our ability to reopen society to cope with Covid-19 and non-Covid-19 healthcare is critically dependent on our intensive care unit capacity which, before Covid-19 and still, remains chronically under-resourced, understaffed, and about half of the capacity of the EU average per 100,000 population. I had an eye-opener in respect of the failure of the Government to address this problem when an ICU nurse came into my clinic this week. She has been offered a job in a Dublin hospital as an ICU nurse, but she is on a Stamp 1 visa and needs a Stamp 4 visa. She went to get an appointment at the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, to get her Stamp 4 visa. She was told that she could not get an appointment until December, in which case she will lose the job and we will be down one ICU nurse. That is, in effect, one ICU bed. That backlog is unacceptable. It shows a lack of focus in ensuring that we get ICU nurses where they are available. I ask the Taoiseach to look into the case, about which I have written to the Ministers for Health and for Justice.

The Government policy of hear no evil, see no evil in the schools is now unfortunately coming to fruition. I want pay tribute to Ms Vicky Barron, the principal of CBS Primary School in Wexford town. The school made the decision to close because more than 10% of their pupils had Covid-19. She appropriately made the point on the radio that the HSE says this is not a school outbreak. What is it, then? It did not come out of the walls. Incredibly, the school has now been pressurised by the Department to reopen. The school has sent letters to parents to say it has been instructed to return to face-to-face learning with immediate effect.

The consequence of that is to place pupils, families and staff in danger. The Government has been incredibly reckless on the question of schools. There is not one high-efficiency particulate absorbing, HEPA, filter in the entire country which has been provided by the Department. There is not a carbon dioxide monitor in every classroom. There was the terrible decision to stop contact tracing. Will the Taoiseach now heed the calls from the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, and others to restart and expand contact tracing and to invest in ventilation and air filtration?

Deputy Calleary raised a number of issues. The programme for reopening continued without a hitch right up until this weekend. That is why there was no necessity for meetings. I had conversations with the Chief Medical Officer to keep track of progression. We are progressing well. Society has reopened effectively. The economy has bounced back with thousands more jobs and the number receiving the pandemic unemployment payment reduced to under 100,000. The situation was okay. The public health people were happy with schools. Last Wednesday, the senior officials group was alerted by public health officials about the deteriorating situation. They wanted some more days to see how the data would unfold in terms of a pattern. They decided to meet on Monday. We were apprised of that on Monday evening and took a decision on Tuesday morning, which has led to a different timeline for the sectors involved. The Cabinet Covid committee will meet again next week.

On the recognition of front-line workers, there is a consultation with social partners, including employers, employee unions, and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to try to identify the best means and approach to recognise front-line healthcare workers for their work during Covid. The Covid committee is independent of and separate from the healthcare committee, which deals with wider issues regarding capacity and so on.

Deputy McDonald asked about sector-specific guidance. Throughout the pandemic, different Departments have worked with sectors and agencies to provide sector-specific guidance. We will do that with the various areas that are being reopened as a result of NPHET's advice and the Government decision yesterday. The Minister and the HSE are dealing with the Owenacurra Centre in Cork. It is not really a matter for the Covid committee.

In response to Deputy Murnane O'Connor, PCR testing is available for those who cannot get a vaccine and so is antigen testing. The booster vaccination has already been made available for those aged over 80 and is being administered. We have not come across any issues with that with immunosuppressed residents in nursing homes. It will be extended to the over-60s. The HSE will put that into operation. It seems that GPs will be involved with over-70s and vaccination centres could be used for over-60s. Those are preliminary statements and it remains to be put into operation by the HSE, which will make decisions and announce them shortly.

I talked with the Minister for Education about the issues raised with regard to CO2 monitoring because ventilation is important and CO2 monitors create awareness if there is an issue in a classroom. We will get a report about that.

In response to Deputy Boyd Barrett, I am not responsible for the issuing of visas for individual applications but I have made it clear that we want as rapid an acceleration of the recruitment of healthcare professionals as we can possibly have in the current situation. Substantial resources have been made available. Some 6,000 additional healthcare workers were recruited last year, with 8,000 to be recruited in 2022. The systems need to make sure that they work in an accelerated way.

There is a two-month waiting list.

In response to Deputy Paul Murphy's question, I strongly reject his assertions that the Government has been, in his words, "incredibly reckless" with regard to schools. The Deputy wanted zero Covid and who swore by public health advice. The Minister for Education has consistently followed public health advice in respect of schools, yet the Deputy just ignored it in his contribution.

The Government stopped contact tracing.

The Deputy refers to the HSE and Government. Public health advice has informed the contact tracing decision and it will inform how each outbreak is dealt with. When the Deputy asks what it is, if not a school outbreak, outbreaks happen in communities too. If public health advice is being given to principals, I cannot second-guess it and the Deputy should not second-guess it, because he is not an expert in public health and he should not pretend to be. It is unwarranted to comment that we hear no evil and we see no evil.

That is because the Government stopped contact tracing.

Our fundamental objective has always been to get schools back because it is good for children. It is important for the development of the child-----

-----to be in school with friends and learning and that we can provide for all aspects of a child's development, including emotional and intellectual. That is best provided in school. We are taking every step that we can, subject to public health advice, to make sure that that happens. We take that seriously. The public health authorities have engaged with the unions at different times of the pandemic over issues that union representatives have raised in respect of the pandemic and its impact on schools, teachers, special needs assistants and all staff who work in our schools. That will remain the case. The Minister for Education has been adamant that she will abide by public health advice in respect of the pandemic and the protection of children, teachers and all the staff in education.

Is the Taoiseach saying that the public health advice is not to have filtration systems?

I said that the Minister has also got advice on ventilation. The recommendation to the Minister was to provide CO2 monitors in schools across the country. Those CO2 monitors have been provided by the Minister.

Cabinet Committees

Dara Calleary


9. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Government co-ordination met last; and when it is next due to meet. [43744/21]

Alan Kelly


10. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Government co-ordination last met and will next meet. [44764/21]

Mary Lou McDonald


11. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Government co-ordination will next meet. [47862/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett


12. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Government co-ordination last met and will next meet. [47962/21]

Paul Murphy


13. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Government co-ordination last met and will next meet. [47965/21]

Mick Barry


14. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Government co-ordination last met and will next meet. [47973/21]

Cian O'Callaghan


15. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Government co-ordination last met. [48202/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 to 15, inclusive, together.

The Government co-ordination committee last met on 18 October and its next meeting is scheduled for Monday, 1 November. The committee was established to review the activity of Cabinet committees, to review the agenda for that week's Government meeting, to discuss political priorities and to review implementation of a specified element of the programme for Government. I am a member of the committee, with the Tánaiste and the leader of the Green Party. The Secretary General to the Government, my chief of staff and the chiefs of staff for the Tánaiste and the leader of the Green Party also sit in on meetings.

The families of Dara Fitzpatrick, Mark Duffy, Paul Ormsby, and Ciarán Smith, the brave crew killed when Rescue 116 crashed on a rescue mission in 2017, face significant legal bills as a result of the Department of Transport's review of the accident. The review was taken after the helicopter operator, CHC Ireland, challenged the report into the crash. The family hired legal teams because they had a reasonable fear that there would be an effort during the review to assign blame for the accident to the crew members who died. The families were dragged into the review because they felt that the Department would not defend their loved ones. They now find themselves faced with legal bills of hundreds of thousands. It is scandalous that the Department did not agree to pay the families' costs in the first place. It is more scandalous that the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has argued against supporting and paying those costs. I hope that the Taoiseach will agree that this is a horrendous way to treat the families of people who died in the line of duty. I ask the Taoiseach directly if he stands by the Green Party's leader's decision. I hope he does not. If he does not, will he now raise with his coalition partners the urgent need to meet in full the legal costs of these families?

The strategic housing development planning process, which allows developers and property speculators to get around the normal planning process and increase the value of sites that they purchase, has been thoroughly discredited. It was supposedly brought in to accelerate the delivery of the housing that we need to address the housing crisis but, as we know, only one third of strategic housing developments have actually been commenced and we now have the phenomenon of these places that get strategic housing development permission being flipped by speculators to make extortionate profits while delivering no housing.

The Chivers site is a disgrace. They lied to the local community and local representatives. Another one in my area I have discovered is the former Jet garage site in Deansgrange, bought by Hyundai. A vehicle run by Hyundai, Dalton Investments, got an SHD three years ago on a site that has been derelict for more than a decade and have flipped it recently. Yet in the last week or so, the Government has said the plan to abolish the SHD planning process, which was supposed to be imminent, has been postponed. How can the Taoiseach explain that when it is clear SHDs are a mechanism for property speculators to make money, get planning permissions, inflate the value of their assets and, in many cases, flip them? They have nothing to do with delivering the public and affordable housing we need. Why is the Government extending the SHD process, which is completely discredited, has done nothing to address the housing crisis and only benefits speculators?

I raise the case of Nadim Hussain, who is on his seventh day of hunger strike. He is living in Cork, where the Taoiseach comes from, and is on hunger strike because the International Protection Appeals Tribunal has affirmed a recommendation of the international protection officer that he should be refused a declaration as a refugee, which has the consequence of threatening him with deportation. He seeks the right to remain here as a refugee. He is a Muslim from India and said to breakingnews.ie :"If I go back to India I will be killed." There is reason for him to believe that because both of his parents were killed in 2018 and he came here in the context of that. They were killed in the context of anti-Muslim violence, which unfortunately is now commonplace in India and is whipped up by the chauvinist Modi regime. Ironically, one of the reasons he is being refused is that he cannot get written confirmation from the Indian police of the circumstances in which his parents died. Given the role of the Indian state in anti-Muslim violence, that is hardly surprising.

There are two issues here. One is the immediate issue of the hunger strike and the danger to his health and life and I appeal to the Government to reach out and make a phone call to Nadim today and promise to take his case seriously. The second issue is his right to remain here as a refugee, given the contribution he has made here, including working in security in hospitals, and given the threat he faces in India.

Yesterday Maynooth University published a report into the experience of non-EEA workers in the Irish fishing industry. This includes workers from countries such as Egypt, the Philippines and Ghana. Many who were surveyed were paid below our national minimum wage. Many reported work days of 15 hours and up to 20 hours. More than 50% of the workers surveyed had experienced racial verbal abuse. The International Transport Workers' Federation, ITF, referred this morning to the "severe exploitation" revealed by the report. The report brings shame on the Irish fishing industry and the country. Clearly, action is called for. Currently, work permits tie theses workers to a particular employer and vessel owner, rather than being industry specific or broader than that. The report, the ITF and the workers all say the work permit system must be radically reformed and the tie with the employer must be broken. What says the Taoiseach in this regard?

I raise the issue of safeguarding procedures for vulnerable adults. Recently, An Garda Síochána had detailed knowledge of credible allegations of sexual assault against vulnerable people experiencing homelessness. I have raised that with the Taoiseach before. The Garda did not pass this information on in a timely manner to the organisation where the alleged perpetrator worked. This placed vulnerable people experiencing homelessness at continued risk. Will the Government introduce legislation to require An Garda Síochána to pass on, when it has detailed knowledge of credible allegations, such information to relevant organisations where people are working or volunteering? We need legislation in that area because the threshold for what is a credible allegation needs to be defined to give An Garda Síochána certainty and clarity and ensure it is a fair process. The current situation where the Garda has knowledge and does not pass it on, placing people at continued risk, is not acceptable.

I will inquire into the issue raised by Deputy McDonald, in terms of the background to this. That was an appalling, terrible tragedy which caused enormous grief for the families. I recall it well. In situations like this, it is important families do not get dragged into a situation where they have exorbitant legal bills arising from situations that are not in their control. The Deputy said the Minister, Deputy Ryan, has argued against paying the legal costs. Has he publicly argued against it? I have not seen those comments but I will discuss this with the Minister, get the background and revert to the Deputy. I prefer to get a full report and get the full background on what has transpired and then I will make a more informed comment on it.

On Deputy Boyd Barrett's point, the Government view has been to move on from the strategic housing development process and cause that scheme to expire. We have initiated a full comprehensive planning review because we think there is a need, legally and so on, to streamline planning overall and to facilitate communities raising issues in respect of developments.

I take the Deputy's point that one third of SHDs were not commenced. That is not acceptable. That was not the reason these were brought in some years back. The idea was to get supply into the housing market and get houses built. If people get planning permission, they should build housing or apartments. If they do not, we will introduce a tax to penalise those who hoard land to secure an increased valuation. We have to disincentivise people hoarding land or endeavouring to increase the value of land through zoning or planning permissions. We want a situation where you use it or lose it, or you get penalised for hoarding land. That is an important measure we took in the budget to try to get a move on in terms of housing supply. That is in addition to the full range of measures introduced-----

Why not scrap the SHD now?

The Minister has given a timeline in terms of that-----

He has not. There are measures relating to the affordable housing scheme, social housing, cost rental, homelessness initiatives and Part V initiatives. There is a comprehensive suite of measures that involve unprecedented State resources to deal with the housing issue.

On Nadim Hussain, I ask that he cease the hunger strike. I do not think he needs to continue with it. I understand the issues. His application has not been successful; however, there are other measures open to the Department, the Minister and officials, such as leave to remain, for example. These issues are being pursued, I understand, and can be decided upon. Hunger strike can cause irreparable damage, so I sincerely ask him to come off the hunger strike.

I am aware of the case and what happened his parents. He has gone through a very traumatic time. I have not read the entirety of the case background, but I take the fact that someone is on hunger strike very seriously. We should make every effort we can to try to help the person in the situation in which he finds himself.

In terms of the report on the work permit system on the fishing industry Deputy Barry referenced, first, there can be no place for exploitation of workers in any industry and there can certainly be no place for exploitation of workers in the fishing industry. I have said repeatedly and consistently to Members in this House that it is extremely important that workers in the fishing industry are protected and well looked after. We have had too many incidents in recent years where cases have arisen in which the rights of workers were clearly not upheld or basic documentation could not be provided or secured in respect of some workers on fishing boats. Where accidents happened or rescues took place, some workers were discovered not to have any documentation at all. That potentially lends itself to significant abuse of such workers.

In terms of work permits being tied to a boat, work permits, generally speaking, have been applied for by employers. We take on board the conclusions of the report and we will engage with the Department, the fishing industry and the Minister involved. The fishing industry is going through a traumatic period at the moment and this is something we cannot afford to allow happen within the sector. It needs to be stamped out.

Deputy Cian O'Callaghan raised the issue of safeguarding. He raises a very substantive issue as to whether we should pass legislation to ask the Garda to pass on information it has. That opens up a whole new area. We need a regulatory framework to govern any organisation that is established in an area such as homelessness. We do it for a whole range of other activities. We should use the tried and trusted organisations that are involved in homelessness that have an established relationship with local authorities and the Government. The days are gone when a body can declare itself to be a homeless charity. There is too much of that going on. Some well meaning people do it, but it creates difficulties and challenges. Organisations such as the Simon Communities of Ireland, Focus Ireland and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul that have long experience of homelessness and that have built up a lot of expertise have done a lot of research and they work collaboratively internationally. We need that informal opinion to inform policy on housing. A variety of other organisations that I have not mentioned do likewise.

Cabinet Committees

Christopher O'Sullivan


16. Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change met last [43783/21]

Alan Kelly


17. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on the environment and climate change last met and will next meet. [44763/21]

Mary Lou McDonald


18. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change will next meet. [45168/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett


19. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change will next meet. [47963/21]

Paul Murphy


20. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change will next meet. [47966/21]

Jennifer Whitmore


21. Deputy Jennifer Whitmore asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change last met. [51085/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 16 to 21, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change last met on Monday of this week, 18 October, and a further meeting will be scheduled in the coming weeks. This Cabinet committee oversees the implementation of the ambitious programme for Government commitments in relation to the environment and climate change. These commitments include those reflected in the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021, which was enacted in July.

The committee also oversees implementation of the Climate Action Plan 2019 and the interim climate actions for 2021, as well as the preparation of the forthcoming climate action plan 2021.

Rural communities are leading the way when it comes to sustainability, but if we are to get buy-in from everybody in rural Ireland when it comes to low-carbon alternatives, we must put those alternatives in place. That is especially true of transport. I am a firm believer in the "every village, every hour" concept, so that no matter what village or town you are in in Ireland, there will be a public transport option - a public bus at the very least, available to you.

The Taoiseach is very familiar with west Cork and how remote the villages and towns on the peninsulas are, and the fact that they are not served by public transport at the moment. At the most, there is one public bus per day. I ask him to ensure that we explore the concept of "every village, every hour" and we make sure that there is a proper functioning public transport system to serve rural Ireland.

Furthermore, we must not let cost be a barrier for young people. The initiative to extend a 50% reduction in public transport to 19 to 24-year olds is fantastic, but cost is a barrier to young people using public transport and we must remove that barrier.

An investigation undertaken by Noteworthy.ie during the summer found that in comparison to other countries, the Government here is not spending enough on protecting Ireland's under-threat biodiversity. A 2020 study of biodiversity financing in Ireland raised concern that the key agencies charged with biodiversity protection are underfunded and understaffed to fulfil their remit.

I previously raised this matter with the Taoiseach, specifically on the National Biodiversity Data Centre. It is the dedication and expertise of the centre's staff that has driven the successful all-Ireland pollinator plan in the past six years. This strategy has delivered tangible island-wide outcomes and has been embraced by every section of society, urban and rural. The work of the centre and the terms and conditions of its employees, however, remain precarious. Its work is outsourced by the Heritage Council on rolling five-year contracts.

This is the only centre of its type in Ireland and the data it collects are fundamental to the State's response to our biodiversity crisis. The centre is woefully under resourced and its staff, all of whom are highly qualified, dedicated individuals, find themselves on precarious contracts due to the outsourcing model imposed on its work. I have repeatedly advocated for the National Biodiversity Data Centre to be placed on a statutory footing. In so doing, we can retain the great talent that we have. We can protect the data that the State and the country rely on and build a centre that is truly fit for the very substantial challenge ahead.

Will the Taoiseach engage with the Minister on this matter and consider it? Could we move collectively to ensure that this sensible and necessary action to place this centre on a statutory footing happens soon?

I have raised the plight of taxi drivers with the Taoiseach many times. They were hit very hard during the pandemic. Taxi drivers also have a key role to play in the decarbonisation of transport. Some €15 million was allocated after some big protests by taxi drivers during the period of Covid for grants to be available to them to get electric cars. To their disappointment and surprise in recent weeks, they were told that although only €6 million out of the €15 million grant scheme has been used up, no further applications are being accepted. That is inexplicable if we want to see the decarbonisation of the taxi fleet. Also, bizarrely, if people had committed to buy an electric vehicle that was worth more than €60,000, there would be an extension on the grant being available to them until March of next year, but if a commitment had been made to purchase a vehicle worth less than €60,000, it would not. That is bizarre.

I also understand, for some inexplicable reason, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, grants for taxi drivers have a similar threshold of €60,000 in order to get a €2,500 grant. You get the money if you are a rich taxi driver who can afford a very expensive electric car, but not if the car is worth less than €60,000. Could the Taoiseach confirm that the scheme will be reopened, that the €9 million that was not spent will be carried over to next year, that there will be an additional allocation and that the arbitrary thresholds of €60,000 will be removed?

The public transport bus drivers who voted against the National Transport Authority, NTA, and Dublin Bus proposals on changing their routes and significantly undermining their existing working conditions are asking if the NTA has learnt anything from the vote. In particular, they ask if it understands that facilitating the race to the bottom, where privatised operators are undermining the conditions of bus workers in terms of their work-life balance, hours of work and so on, is the last direction in which they want to go.

If we want to expand public transport, we need to protect the working conditions of bus drivers and end the privatisation of routes. We need a public system where workers' conditions are protected and where we expand the routes available to people.

There is a new report from the UN Environment Programme out today and it concludes that fossil fuel production planned by the world's governments vastly exceeds the limit needed to keep the rise in global heating to 1.5°C. In fact, it finds that it is at 110% extra so we would be heading for more than a 3°C rise. In a way, that encapsulates the new form of climate denialism which is dominant throughout many of the world's governments, which is to accept the science and say it is clear that human-generated climate change is having a huge impact, to say we need to do what we need to do, and then simply to fail to do it, because doing so would mean taking on, in this case, big oil. The five biggest oil and gas companies between them have $5 trillion worth of oil reserves. They need to stay in the ground and those companies need to be put out of business, but the world's capitalist governments obviously refuse to do so.

The version of that in Ireland is reflected in the approach of the Government to big agribusiness and reflected in the discussion around the carbon budgets, which is to say, “Do not worry, we will do the hard part of the job after the Government is gone. Do not worry, for the biggest hitting sector, we will not actually reduce the size of the national herd." There is no indication of how we are actually going to bring down emissions. I thought the exchange earlier between the Taoiseach and Deputy Danny Healy-Rae was instructive. Deputy Healy-Rae was accusing the Taoiseach of saying that the national herd has to be cut and the Taoiseach was very defiantly saying that, no, he definitely did not say that. What is missing is some basic honesty that, yes, the national herd absolutely has to be cut if we are to meet our climate targets.

That does not have to mean and must not mean a reduction in living standards for small farmers. Small farmers should be guaranteed a living income and they should be given payments for carbon sequestration and ecosystem services. However, it does mean challenging the model of agriculture which currently operates in the interests of the big agribusiness companies.

Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan raised a very interesting issue. I accept his point that rural communities are leading the way in respect of climate change, and I would endorse fully his view of “every village, every hour”. This is an issue we need to return to in terms of providing local public transport and local services. Obviously, they can be provided by different providers but it is that people throughout rural Ireland would have regular access to such transport alternatives.

The Deputy is right in saying that young people, in particular, should be helped both with the provision of frequent bus services and with the cost of that. I accept the Deputy’s point that cost is a barrier to young people availing of public transport. The recent budget decision in respect of 19 to 24-year-olds is a very positive development, and that is something the Government wants to build on. The Deputy is correct that I am familiar with west Cork but there are Deputies present from different parts of the world. Young people have a lot of journeys to make and it is very challenging in terms of getting from A to B, particularly in Kerry, Cork, Galway and other parts of the west, the midlands and so on. I believe it is an area we should focus in on.

There is also the question of the symbolism it would provide but, more than symbolism, there is the reality of change. The reason that such a service is being provided is that we need to change how we do things in terms of transport alternatives in rural Ireland in particular. That would send a signal that we are very serious about addressing the issues of climate change.

I hear what the Deputy is saying about not letting costs be a barrier. I will change that to say that cost is always a challenge but it is also about prioritisation of the issues.

Deputy McDonald raised the issue of the National Biodiversity Data Centre. More broadly, the Government has significantly increased funding to biodiversity in the last two budgets and also to organisations, including the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, to get a stronger focus in terms of our biodiversity agenda, the national pollinator plan and so on. We are very anxious in this regard. The carbon tax funds give us opportunities to fund quite a range of biodiversity programmes, in particular in terms of environmentally-friendly farming. Some Deputies oppose that yet want us to do a whole lot of things in regard to biodiversity. We really need to increase resourcing to biodiversity. I will examine the issue in terms of the National Biodiversity Data Centre and I will speak to the Minister. We need urgently to work on all fronts in respect of that biodiversity agenda. I think progress is being made. The meadows looked very well during the summer and I think they have been cut now, so they will grow better again next season. Basic, simple things like that matter. I saw that this morning. I was with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and found there is a very significant allocation to beekeepers. It is interesting that the more organisations we go to now, we find they produce their own honey. I was in University College Cork recently and it produces a very good quality honey. I think Leinster House should develop beehives and we should be producing honey in here, and in Government Buildings likewise. Some of the staff suggested that to me when I was traversing it recently.

It might sweeten up the Members.

I think it could sweeten up the Members. It would have that desired impact.

A Deputy

There could be a sting in the tail.

On the National Biodiversity Data Centre, I will speak to the Minister again in that regard.

Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the issue of taxi drivers. I do not want to get into the nitty-gritty of the operation of every scheme. The Deputy said €6 million has been taken up out of €15 million in respect of electric vehicles. I think every opportunity should be given to people to avail of that.

They stopped taking applications.

Sometimes deadlines on schemes are to get people to apply because, otherwise, it goes on forever and people do not apply. Deadlines provide a catalyst to get a scheme up and running and get it moving. I will talk to the Minister in that regard and also in regard to the other matters in terms of the thresholds by which a scheme is extended or not. I will get the background to that and I will see if it is as the Deputy presents it. I will leave it at that because there were other issues that I spoke about earlier which were not quite as presented yesterday. No doubt we will return to those another day.

The Deputy also mentioned bus drivers more generally and working conditions. As transport develops and expands, whether it be through private provision, the public provision has to be expanded and developed as well. We need more services because we are going to have to increase public transport to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and, over time, reduce dependence on cars in cities and towns. That is going to become a reality in the years to come. As Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan said in respect of rural Ireland and bus provision, we need to have a good quality environment for workers to work in.

And to protect the workers’ conditions.

Yes. Deputy Paul Murphy said the equivalent of the big oil companies are the big agribusinesses. I do not know who he is referring to.

In this country.

Who are they?

The politically powerful. Those with the ear of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

But who are they?

Is it the farmers?

It is Larry Goodman, the beef barons, Greencore.

I am just wondering whether the Deputy was afraid to use the term “farmer” and he just used this ideological term “big agribusiness”.

That is because I am not talking about ordinary farmers. That is why.

Who is an ordinary farmer? The language-----

Definitely not Larry Goodman.

That is it, is it not? That is the crux of the position Deputy Murphy takes all of the time but, actually, there are many farmers out there-----


In respect of my engagement with Deputy Danny Healy-Rae, that was in respect of the accuracy of what he said. He was simply inaccurate in what he said. He could not produce the quote. That is the point. I will challenge that when it is said. I have no recollection of ever saying that. I will tell Deputy Paul Murphy one thing: I think we need food security.

Do we need a reduction in the national herd?

Ireland is a leader environmentally and probably far friendlier on emissions targets than any other country. We are world leaders in terms of being friendly. We can do better and we have to do better, but there is always a balance between food security and the climate agenda, and it is a challenging one. However, we need to produce food in Europe.

We are exporting milk powder.

We can see what is happening and, very often, how the balance changes. We look at Afghanistan. I was reading recently how Afghanistan in the 1970s was cosmopolitan and people were in far better condition. Look at Afghanistan today.

That is thanks to Russia and America. They wrecked the place.

We must be balanced.

Thanks to Russia and America; they wrecked the place.

We must do things in a progressive way. We must make farming more environmentally friendly and so on.