Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

According to media reports this morning, thousands of households across the State are set to be hit with a rise in the cost of bin collections and TV packages along with more energy price increases. The Tánaiste will be aware that inflation is now running at greater than 5% and is likely to continue upwards next year. We also know that energy poverty is becoming a growing problem across the State. Energy prices are soaring. We will see a further increase in the carbon tax, which will increase fuel costs even more. It has been reported that households will face bills of an additional €400 this winter. In budget 2022, the Government announced a bare minimum increase to the fuel allowance income threshold of €20, which will reach only a limited number of households. What will the Tánaiste and the Government do in the coming months to address these soaring costs and the cost of living crisis so many workers and families face?

The Government acknowledges that the cost of living is rising and that a lot of bills have increased in the past few weeks and months and may rise again into the new year. The Deputy will acknowledge that many of these cost increases are driven by international factors, not Government decisions, and involve prices set by commercial entities rather than the Government. The Government provided in the budget for an increase in the fuel allowance, extending it to more people, increases in welfare and pension payments, which kick in from 1 January, and decreases in income tax and personal taxation for middle-income people in particular, something not supported by Sinn Féin. The average middle-income couple will be €800 better off in cash terms, paying less tax, than would be the case under Sinn Féin's proposals. We have provided for other measures that will help families, such as the increase in the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grant next year and reductions in the cost of medicines. Those are the kinds of things we are doing, but we acknowledge that, while they will help with the rising cost of living, they may not be enough to fully compensate families for it.

Because of Article 41 of our Constitution, the only fully legally recognised family is that created through marriage. We know that does not reflect the reality of modern Ireland, in which there are more than 150,000 cohabiting couples. To recognise the modern family unit fully, we need a change in the Constitution. Furthermore, the Tánaiste will be aware, since I have raised the case here on numerous occasions, of Johnny O'Meara from Tipperary, whose partner Michelle died and whose family was left without any entitlement to a widow's contributory pension.

The family unit has changed. In fairness, the Tánaiste has taken an interest in this issue, and I have raised the matter in the past.

Will the Tánaiste ensure amendments are brought to the upcoming social welfare Bill that will ensure cohabiting couples are made eligible for a contributory survivor's pension? Will he give a timeline for a referendum to deliver on the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly? We would like Article 41 of the Constitution amended to reflect the UN definition of the family.

I am afraid I cannot make a commitment on that on the floor of the House right now, but I know it is being examined by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee. I will let the Ministers know that the matter has been raised here and I will ask that a more detailed response is sent to the Deputy.

The figures from the Residential Tenancies Board show that rent caps have been breached in every county in Ireland where they have been introduced. Figures given to me by the Residential Tenancies Board also confirm that sanctions against landlords for breaching rent caps have only been applied in about 10% of the cases investigated. Clearly, rent caps are not working. It is not just the Opposition Deputies who are saying this. Deputy Willie O'Dea, a Government back bench Deputy, has called for an end to ineffective tweaks on rent caps and for a complete ban on rent increases. Does the Tánaiste agree with this call for a complete ban on rent increases? Will the Government bring that in?

Rent caps or rent freezes of any nature are not going to work if they are not enforced. This is acknowledged by the Government. The Minister, Deputy O'Brien has spoken on this in recent weeks and is working on proposals.

It is just under a year since People Before Profit brought the first motion to this Dáil calling for student nurses and student midwives to be paid while they are working on placement. Today, they are still out there protesting and demanding they be paid and respected for the work they do during placement. I understand the Tánaiste said earlier there will be a slight increase for final year students and a continuation, just for the period of the pandemic, of the pretty miserable and insulting €100 per week. Does the Tánaiste not understand that the majority of those student nurses and midwives are planning or considering leaving this country, and this is repeated outside by all of the students when you talk to them, because of the lack of respect and reward they get while they are students, including the difficulties with fees, the cost of subsistence, travel and accommodation, and the inability to work while they are on placement? This is not just a Covid issue. We need to pay our student nurses and midwives and support them if we are going to keep them in the public health service after they qualify.

As somebody who worked in the public health service for seven years, as somebody who represents a constituency just like the Deputy does, and as somebody who has friends and family working in the health service, I very much understand the recruitment and retention challenges the Irish health services face. I understand such challenges are far from unique to Ireland. It is a problem faced by almost every health service in the developed world. Nonetheless, we are making important progress. The HSE was able to add an additional 7,000 to 8,000 staff in the past year and has authorisation to add another 7,000 or 8,000 staff. We have more doctors employed by the HSE than ever was the case before, both consultants and non-consultant hospital doctors. We have been increasing our midwife and nurse numbers in recent years, which is extremely welcome.

What can we do about it? The pay increases happening right across the public service can help. Reductions in income tax, which the Deputy does not support, have the same effect in people's take home pay and help to reduce the cost of living. The Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, will be making an announcement about the increase in the payment for student nurse and midwife interns.

The educational needs of their children are taken very seriously by every parent, and particularly so when a child has additional needs. Across Tipperary and the country, numerous children are in their final year in autism units of primary schools. Secondary school enrolments are under way. Autism units in secondary schools should be structured to be capable of accepting all pupils who are making the transition up from primary schools. Parents want their autistic children to transfer to secondary schools that provide for their educational needs while incorporating the familiarity and security of the friends they have made in primary school. There is an abject failure by the State to provide sufficient places for autistic children when they graduate from primary to secondary schools.

The lack of spaces is a cause of considerable confusion and distress among these children and their parents. I ask the Government to recognise that the current system is failing autistic children. We need to fill this gaping gap in our secondary school system as a matter of urgency.

I thank Deputy Lowry for his question. Obviously, as Minister responsible for special education, I take the matter very seriously. We must always have an adequate number of places in special classes. The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, is tasked, through its special educational needs organisers, SENOs, with working with schools on the ground to make sure every child with additional needs can make the transition from primary school to post-primary school. If we consider the progress we have made since 2011, we note we have increased the number of special class places by 386%, from 584 to 2,118. This year alone, we opened 269 special classes, 74 of which were for autism spectrum disorder, ASD, pupils at post-primary level. Next year, we will be opening 287 special classes, 101 of which will be for post-primary level. We have continued to work with the NCSE and the Department, including through the SENOs. There is always support available so if the Deputy is aware of families in need of it, he should make sure they notify the Department or let me know about them, or they can engage with the National Council for Special Education.

There is a huge backlog of passports waiting to be processed and printed. I have heard from people all over my constituency who have had their travel plans destroyed recently. We, as Oireachtas Members, were given a telephone number the week before last so we could have direct contact with the Passport Office. Yesterday, my office was open at 9 a.m. and by 11.30 a.m. we had five calls about passports made. We were then told we could make no further calls until next week. I do not know who came up with the number five but it is not good enough by a long shot. I know of a lady waiting on her baby’s passport. She has worked as a scientist on Covid-19 research since the very start of the pandemic. She was told she may get her passport in December. I have encountered the case of a lady who is supposed to get on a flight on Saturday morning but, alas, she has no passport. There is another lady who had to cancel her plans to fly with her daughter last weekend. I could go on and on. What is the Government going to do to address the backlog and give Members of the Oireachtas access to passport offices immediately?

I acknowledge the difficulties we have had and the delays people have experienced in getting a new passport or having their passport renewed. I am sure we all have had an unprecedented number of queries in our constituency offices about this. I certainly have. It is related to issues concerning the pandemic in that a backlog built up. Also, the staff are not fully back in the passport offices. This is a matter on which the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, is working and on which he will try to make progress in the next little while.

As it stands, it is the intention of the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Ryan, to grant prospecting licences for base metals, silver and gold in respect of certain townlands in Leitrim. While I am aware of the difference between prospecting licences and mining licences, the simple fact is local communities do not want mining companies to get their foot in the door. They do not want carbon-heavy extractive industries, such as the mining industry, because they are not sustainable or appropriate for their county. Just yesterday, Leitrim County Council voted unanimously to call on the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications not to proceed with the issuing of a licence for several locations in Leitrim. I ask the Tánaiste to intervene with the Minister and ensure Government policy will not support the issuing of these licences.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. I am afraid I am not across the detail of it but it came up in conversation with the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, and others when I had the opportunity to visit both Sligo and Leitrim quite recently. I expect to see the Minister, Deputy Ryan, on Thursday, if not tomorrow, and I will let him know the Deputy raised the matter today and ask him to contact her directly.

Is the Tánaiste aware of the difficulties being experienced by several sports organisations as a result of the rule that, to participate in indoor sport, people must be vaccinated? The Minister will be aware it is not possible for people under the age of 12 to be vaccinated. There are some indoor sports, such as basketball, where a considerable percentage of the participants are under that age.

Does the Government intend to revisit that decision or, at least, publish clear guidelines for how it will operate and indicate the scientific information that underpins the decision?

I will certainly look into the issue and come back to the Deputy on it. My understanding is that an unlimited number of people can engage in indoor sports if they are fully vaccinated, while if they are not fully vaccinated it has to be done in pods, but this does not apply to children under 12. I will check that out and revert to the Deputy with a more detailed reply.

I thank the Tánaiste for clarifying the approach that will be taken in respect of farming in the climate action plan. Measures to improve the environmental impact of agriculture are not an attack on farming, as some people would seek to portray them, but rather are about farming better. I draw the attention of the House and the Tánaiste to the smart farming programme. It is a co-operative programme between the Irish Farmers Association and the Environmental Protection Agency through which, in a common effort, they are delivering for farmers cost savings of €5,600 and a cut in climate impact of 9%. That is the way forward. It is about coming up with practical ways of dealing with the challenge. This is an exporting country and we need to be conscious of the way consumers will view our products in the future. We must act to protect livelihoods.

The Deputy is absolutely correct. It is in our interest as a food-producing country, as well as being in the interests of Irish farmers and the food industry, to embrace the climate and sustainability agenda, and I know very many, if not the vast majority, want to do exactly that. As things change in the coming couple of decades, banks and financial institutions will only lend money to businesses and firms they think are scoring well in terms of climate and sustainability, and consumers increasingly will want to know about the products they are buying and whether those products contributed to the pollution of rivers or to climate change. That is why it makes sense as a food-producing nation that we get on the right side of history in this regard. The comments of the Deputy in that respect are absolutely correct. What we need to do as a Government and a society is work with farmers and bring them and the food industry with us, and that is what we intend to do.

I wish to raise the issue of the updated guidance on games issued by Sport Ireland on 28 October. Last weekend alone, these guidelines created severe issues for volunteers in basketball and other indoor sports. The volunteers have been placed in the very difficult position of having to tell children they are not allowed to participate in indoor matches due to not being fully vaccinated. These people are volunteers and significant pressure is being put on them. They are having to turn young players away. At present, there is a lack of representation of any indoor sports national governing body on the Sport Ireland expert group and that needs to be addressed. Clarity must be given in respect of why mixed-immunity children can play indoor sports together in school but not outside the school in their local club. Will the Tánaiste give clarity on that issue and consider providing for representation of indoor sports on the expert group?

I thank the Deputy. Deputy O'Dea raised this issue earlier. I will follow up on it. It has come up in my conversations with constituents too. We do need to get clarity. My understanding is the restriction does not apply to those under 12 and that unvaccinated people or those with mixed vaccination status can train in pods. I acknowledge that may not always be practical, particularly for a sport such as basketball, but I will look into it and come back to both Deputies with a better reply.

I thank the Tánaiste for recently confirming in reply to a parliamentary question I tabled that IDA Ireland will build a second advance facility in Tralee. That is very welcome. It follows on from the first advance facility which was built by IDA Ireland several years ago. It now houses Central Pharma and will become operational in the first quarter of the new year. This is an issue on which I am working hard with Councillor Jim Finucane in Tralee. He, too, is passionate about it. He raised it at a meeting of Kerry County Council on Monday and pointed out there are many suitable vacant sites in the technology park. I brought the Minister of State, Deputy English, there last week to show him the vacant sites. It is very important the Tánaiste pushes to make this happen as soon as possible. We know Central Pharma will provide numerous jobs for Tralee and Kerry. Another advance facility could provide hundreds of jobs for Tralee and Kerry and would be vital to the economy, but we need to see it happening as soon as possible. I welcome the progress made to date.

IDA Ireland is committed to building a second new advance technology building in Tralee. I know both Deputy Griffin and Councillor Jim Finucane have been working on the matter for quite some time. The site selection process is under way. Securing planning permission and the construction of the building will be the next step after that. It is intended the facility will be built during the lifetime of the current IDA Ireland strategy, that is, not later than 2024. The advance technology building might be used either as a new office development or an industrial investment, given the flexible nature of the kind of building solutions IDA Ireland does. The intention is to use this building solution to secure a foreign direct investment for Tralee that will create hundreds of new jobs for the town and the region.

I wish to ask the Tánaiste about comments by the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Ryan, on the possibility of the power stations at Shannonbridge and Lanesborough playing a role in generating emergency electricity in the coming years. This begs the question, given the national grid was already struggling last year, of whether consideration was given to the impact on energy supply of shutting down the Shannonbridge and Lanesborough power stations. The Tánaiste will be aware workers in counties such as Roscommon and Galway lost their livelihoods overnight. Those jobs have not been replaced. They and their communities really feel like they are collateral damage in the move from brown energy to green energy. To add insult to injury, peat production in Ireland has been stopped but peat is now being imported at record levels, with almost 40,000 tonnes, to the value of €6.7 million, having been imported in just the first seven months of this year.

Will the Tánaiste explain to workers who have been laid off in Shannonbridge and Lanesborough why it was necessary to shut down peat-fired power stations almost overnight but tens of thousands of tonnes of peat are now being imported? Will he tell those workers how much emissions are being saved by transporting peat thousands of miles rather than just down the road?

The power stations at Lanesborough and Shannonbridge were not closed as a consequence of a Government decision. It is important to emphasise that. I know the Deputy is aware of it already. These were decisions by An Bord Pleanála and the courts. What the ESB wanted to do and what the Government wanted it to do was to convert those stations to biomass, such that they would use a mix of peat and biomass and then biomass into the future, which would be a dispatchable form of renewable energy but, unfortunately, for environmental reasons that was shot down by An Bord Pleanála and that is why it did not proceed. People can argue about whether that was the right decision, but it is the decision that was made and it was definitely not a decision of the Government.

I spoke to the new chief executive officer of the ESB yesterday, especially about Lanesborough because I visited Longford last week. The ESB is considering several options for the Lanesborough site, one of which involves using it as a battery electricity plant. One of the things that can now be done in the context of wind energy is that surplus wind produced on the grid can then be stored in batteries and then dispatched as needed. That is one of the options being considered for Lanesborough. It would be a new generation power station, if you like.

This morning, Irish Families Through Surrogacy gave me a letter to give to the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health seeking support for urgent legislation on international surrogacy. I have met, outside the gates of Leinster House and previously, families from Carlow and Kilkenny impacted by this issue and I support them. There are reports the Government will delay the assisted human reproduction Bill because of technical legal issues. Will this legislation recognise and allow for international and compensated surrogacy which is guided by best practice? I would appreciate knowing the expected timeline for the publication of the Bill. Enactment of this legislation is committed to in the programme for Government. The Bill must be published as a matter of urgency to give legal recognition to children born through surrogacy and to their families. I hope the Tánaiste will support these families and hear their concerns on the urgency and particulars of this legislation.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I acknowledge that legislation on assisted human reproduction and international surrogacy is long overdue. Many Members have been lobbied in respect of this issue in recent weeks. It is complex. There are complex legal and ethical questions that arise in respect of for-profit surrogacy services, children being moved from other countries to this country and the right to know who one's biological parents are. There are many very complicated ethical issues that have to be resolved, particularly in the context of our difficult history in respect of adoption and women giving up their children and so on.

We must get this right. There has been substantial work done and engagement on this issue since the formation of the Government, involving the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, the Minister for Health, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and the Attorney General. In the coming weeks a memorandum will be brought to Cabinet proposing how to consider the issues relating to international surrogacy and how subsequently to introduce any legislative change. It will be a joint memorandum from the Departments of Justice; Health; and Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. It will propose the establishment of a time-limited special joint Oireachtas committee to consider the issue, including the issues arising from commercial international surrogacy, and to report with recommendations.

A father told me today that his 12-year-old, 14-year-old and 16-year-old children have been banned from playing basketball because they have no vaccine pass. A volleyball coach in County Mayo was told not to accept girls between the ages of 12 and 17 if they do not have a vaccine pass. A kickboxing coach was also told not to accept children for the same reasons. A young girl was stopped from going on a school trip because she had no vaccine pass.

First of all, discrimination is wrong. Second, it makes no sense. Transmission of Covid-19 is happening between people who are vaccinated. If the Government wants to stop transmission, antigen testing is the way to do it. It also does not have the effect of discriminating against people. Children have suffered so much during the Covid pandemic. Their education has been hammered and their social development has been radically arrested over the last year. It is incredible that they are now facing being othered, segregated and banned from doing things that are good for their physical and mental health. It is wrong, cruel and useless. Will the Tánaiste reverse it?

I thank the Deputy. It is important to say at the outset that the vaccines do reduce transmission. They do not eliminate it, but they do reduce it. It is one of the reasons why it is in people's interest to get vaccinated. It will reduce the risk of them transmitting the virus to other people, as well as considerably reducing the risk of them being hospitalised, needing intensive care or dying as a consequence of contracting the virus. Obviously, these are decisions that individuals have to make and parents have to make with respect to their children.

In relation to the issue of indoor sports, it has been raised a couple of times. A number of Deputies raised it earlier. I have committed to seeking a further examination of the regulations. My understanding is that if there is a mixed group of children, some of whom are vaccinated and some are not, it is possible for them to train and do activities in pods. As I said, I will follow up on the issue.

We are going to run out of time, so I will take Deputies McAuliffe and Ryan. They have 30 seconds each.

This morning, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage completed the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Local Government (Directly Elected Mayor with Executive Functions in Limerick City & County) Bill 2021. It was clear that that legislation would be utterly unsuitable for the Dublin area. Yet, Dublin has been promised a directly elected mayor in the programme for Government.

Can the Tánaiste say when the Government might bring forward either legislation or a convention with a view to getting consensus on the issue? There are many aspects of cultural, social and business life in Dublin that need stronger local government. Housing is one example of an area where the Government has given all of the powers to local authorities, yet I do not see the ambition at local authority level to deliver.

On page 12 of the programme for Government, a commitment is made to introduce new measures of well-being and progress. It states: "existing measures of economic performance fail to measure matters such as damage to the environment and voluntary work...equality of opportunity, distribution of wealth and income..." What progress has been made with this? Will the Government commit to monitoring and improving the Gini co-efficient, which measures the distribution of wealth?

A lot of work is underway on the issue of the well-being index. I will ensure that Deputy Ryan receives an update on that. The Gini co-efficient, which is a measure of income inequality, is produced every year by the Central Statistics Office, CSO, with the survey on income and living conditions. Despite a lot of claims to the contrary and a lot of misinformation, in Ireland as a country, almost unusually in the western world, income inequality has narrowed in recent years. We are much more equal than many other countries that we compare ourselves to. We have seen falling inequality in recent years, not increasing inequality, as least as measured by the Gini co-efficient.

In relation to Deputy McAuliffe's question on the Dublin mayor and Dublin local government, the next citizens' assembly on the list will examine the issue of government in Dublin, because we have an unusual arrangement with the four local authorities and four mayors. It is next on the list to have a citizens' assembly on the issue. We are keen to ensure that happens next year with a view to being able to put proposals to the people of all four Dublin local authorities in a plebiscite on the same day as the local and European elections in 2024.