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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 3 Nov 2021

Vol. 1013 No. 3

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

I want to raise the ongoing failure to provide fair pay and allowances for student nurses and midwives. The Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, has had the McHugh report into this matter sitting on his desk for three months. We tabled a motion yesterday evening and the Minister's remarks during that debate only extended to extending the pandemic payment for a year and vague references to what he called "other measures". At this stage, it is completely unacceptable. These students put their own welfare and lives on the line to assist others.

Only for them our health service would have ground to a standstill.

The McHugh report needs to be published urgently and there needs to be engagement with the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, and other unions. We also need to see permanent fair pay and allowances for all our student nurses and midwives. Will the Taoiseach commit to the immediate publication of the McHugh report and respect recognition and reward for these incredible young professionals, midwives and nurses?

I brought in the nursing degree programme quite a number of years ago as Minister for Health and, if I say so myself, it was a transformative thing to do in how we educate nursing in this country and moved it on, by way of advanced nurse practitioners and postgraduate degrees, which has made a significant difference to our health system and the delivery of our health service. I am very keen therefore that we will continue to improve the situation for student nurses within the context of a degree programme within our universities and our institutes of technology. There was a deliberate decision at the time to ensure we had widespread provision across the regions for nurse education. The Minister yesterday would have referred to the measures he took last year in the context of Covid-19 which were important, significant and should not be dismissed. Likewise, in respect of the McHugh report, he is bringing those proposals to Cabinet and we want to take positive decisions on this and on the recommendations of that review which would create a longer term beneficial situation for student nurses.

The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, has published a report on urban wastewater treatment. Raw sewage is being discharged from 34 towns and villages. We are told construction will start on 14 locations this year and eight in 2022. A third of these towns and villages will continue to release raw sewage after 2024. The report identifies a number of locations specifically in Cork. Cobh, thankfully, is to be resolved this year, but Ballycotton, Whitegate, Aghada and Mitchelstown are planned for later in the decade, as is Inchigeelagh. The EPA's concern is that repeated plans over the years have not been acted upon.

This is not just an ecological and environmental issue. The lack of these facilities is also impacting on the housing crisis. For many young people with mortgage approval in towns like Mitchelstown where there are capacity constraints who wish to see houses built and where builders with sites are ready to go, the EPA report makes for very grim reading. I ask the Taoiseach to give this his priority.

I thank the Deputy for raising what is a very important issue and I share his impatience. We want to get this done as fast as we possibly can. I was in Cobh recently, as was, I believe, the Deputy. This was a very significant achievement by Irish Water on the wastewater treatment system that is now operational and in place in the lower harbour region of Cork and significant progress was made there.

The EPA, however, has issued its report in respect of 34 towns. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has allocated in the past two budgets and in the July stimulus package significant additional capital funding to Irish Water in a bid to enable it to accelerate its programme. Any such wastewater treatment plant goes through a range of hurdles and logistics. I have seen it myself in places throughout the country where money is allocated, schemes are ready to go ahead. If I may say one final thing in the House on this issue-----

The Taoiseach's time is up.

-----if we are serious about all of these issues as a country and as an Oireachtas, we need to get a bit real in how we deliver these projects faster. They are just being held up all over the place across the board and we cannot afford the luxury of doing that anymore.

I call Deputy Whitmore now, please.

I have worked in the environmental sector since I was 17 years of age, as a scientist, a policymaker and now within the Dáil. I can be absolutely clear with the Taoiseach that I and the Social Democrats want him to achieve when it comes to the climate as we need him to do so. We have worked constructively with the Government on this issue since the Taoiseach entered office in this Dáil.

The reality is that agriculture accounts for one third of our greenhouse emissions. Farmers will have a very significant role to play when it comes to us hitting our targets. Farmers are very good at doing what the Government asks and pays them to do. They will put their shoulder to the wheel and will do it but they need leadership from this Government. The Government, by minimising the role and the targets farmers will have to meet, is doing farmers a disservice because it is not giving them the time they will need to prepare and it is not providing them with the technological and financial supports they will need. By saying farmers will only have to have a reduction of 10%, that is not going to achieve the targets we need them to achieve. Will the Taoiseach please be honest with targets? Honesty is the best environmental and economic policy for our farmers and they need him to lead on this.

Everybody needs to be honest. The farmers do not believe that what we are proposing is anything other than too much.

The Taoiseach needs to talk to them-----

Let us all be honest here. The farming representatives have a view that what is being proposed is excessive.

Please, Deputy, allow the Taoiseach to respond.

I am just taking that point. The Deputy is giving the impression that they would appreciate if there were higher targets set for them. They would not, actually.

They want supports and they want targets.

They need supports and they will be provided with them. We need a more diverse approach to farming in income streams to give opportunities to farming. We need to work with farmers. As I said earlier, there is a very significant hunger in the farming community for its capacity to reduce costs through alternative energy solutions, and that is something that I am very supportive of, but again we need to accelerate that together with the microgeneration within farming in a different approach. Farmers are creative, innovative entrepreneurs, as we heard this morning. We want to support them on this agenda.

Be honest with them about what they will need to do.

There were 3,726 Covid-19 cases confirmed yesterday. This is the highest figure since January. Schools are on the front line of the fight against Covid-19 and they are not getting the support they need from the Government. Back in September, the Government decided to stop contact testing and tracing in schools. In this Chamber I described this as a hear no evil, see no evil policy and the Taoiseach said that was an unwarranted comment. Now we see the consequences of this policy. Will the Taoiseach reverse the mistaken decision and reintroduce proper testing and tracing in schools and will he also address the issue of the lack of ventilation and, in particular, the lack of filtration. While Australia and Germany are providing high efficiency particulate air, HEPA, filters for every single classroom, we still do not even have a CO2 monitor in every classroom. Will the Government provide classrooms with the HEPA filtration systems that they need in order to reduce the spread of Covid-19 so that we can keep our schools open and do so safely?

We need to be clear about this. The Deputy reported the figure of 3,726 cases and he almost, by juxtaposition, blames schools for this. This is an incredible presentation and it is not the case.

Look at 5- to 12-year-olds. I am not saying that.

The issue is this. It is vital that children go to school and that their full range of development is catered for. That is the first priority and objective. What is the biggest issue facing children right now, if you talk to public health people or to people in hospitals? I was in Clonmel on Friday and met the paediatrician, the director of nursing in the paediatric ward there. The biggest issue she has in admissions is respiratory syncytial virus, RSV. Non-Covid respiratory viruses are the biggest challenge facing children right now. The Chief Medical Officer said the same to me when I spoke to him prior to the weekend. We all need to be very clear on messaging.

The Taoiseach's time is up.

I think that there will be a role, having spoken to the Chief Medical Officer, for antigen testing in specific areas, in schools and so on.

They need HEPA filters.

In 2009 the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform told the Dáil the failure to modernise the law on the registration of sex offenders would lead to Ireland becoming a safe haven for convicted sex offenders. Some 151 months later that gaping hole in our so-called sex offenders register has yet to be closed off. It is likely that some of the near-500 convicted rapists and paedophiles missing from the UK are residing here in Ireland, posing an unacceptable risk to women, children and vulnerable adults because of our outdated sex offenders register. When will we see the long-promised sex offenders (amendment) Bill?

I will engage with the Minister for Justice on that Bill and legislation, where it is and I will come back to the Deputy on that.

At the present time, farmers feel very isolated, demonised and like the whole world is done on top of them. They have worries about herd reduction, cuts to their incomes and livelihoods and severe new restrictions and regulations coming down the line.

Is it by coincidence or design that prices quoted for fertiliser at present are double what they were last August? At a Teagasc presentation this morning, the consensus was that the availability of fertiliser next spring is in doubt. This scenario could lead to a fodder crisis and automatic herd reduction, which could break every farmer in the country. Will the Government ensure fertiliser is available after Christmas at a reasonable cost for the farmers of Ireland?

First, there is no coincidence and it is wrong to suggest there is.

I asked whether there was a coincidence; I did not state there is one.

The Deputy might at least let the Taoiseach start to answer before jumping down his neck.

The point is there is no connection between climate change plans and proposals and the current issue with the supply of fertiliser. That is a global issue and it is gas related. At the European Council meeting, a number of Prime Ministers referenced challenges in regard to fertiliser supplies in the coming months. Yes, it is going to be problematic and there are lots of supply chain issues manifesting. We know car manufacturing, for example, has taken a big hit because of the insufficient supply of chips. That is happening in the real world. Production targets have been pulled back. We saw Apple's announcement this morning in respect of some of its endeavours.

Thank you, Taoiseach.

There are very real issues in the global supply chain market at the moment and we are going to have to deal with them.

This is a very serious issue.

Yes, it is.

In advance of COP26, the Taoiseach called for action instead of rhetoric. One of the areas in which we need action is transport and how people travel. Glasgow, due to its proximity, is a city that is relatively easy to get to from Ireland. It can be reached by train and ferry and there are five commercial flights from Dublin. In the context of the volume of carbon emissions from private jets, will the Taoiseach confirm he did not use the Government jet to get there? Much more importantly, will he confirm the jet will no longer be used where there is a feasible alternative in the form of commercial flights to the city of destination?

I did not use the Government jet to go to Glasgow. Given the sheer number of people staying in the city, we stayed in Edinburgh and made the journey down. There are enormous crowds in Glasgow for COP26, with enormous interest from NGOs and so on. The Government jet is not being used that frequently, not by design, to be frank, because we do need to get to meetings and get back to be in this House and elsewhere, but because of its frequent need for maintenance and so on.

I hear what the Deputy is saying in terms of carbon-efficient travel. Earlier this week, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, published a very interesting and significant set of proposals around rural transport. We have to develop active transport and there are very significant resources going in behind that. I think we will transform this country because of Government decisions on greenways, cycle routes and walking routes. That will be very important for the future.

Yesterday, like many other Deputies and Senators, I joined outside Leinster House a number of parents of children born through surrogacy who are looking for the most basic of rights for those children to be recognised, namely, the right to a family. They expressed their shock and dismay at some of the proposals coming forward. We have a special rapporteur on children who has recommended creating clear pathways for parenthood. When will the Government follow through on those recommendations? When will these families get a pathway to parenthood, recognition of international surrogacy and retrospective recognition?

The Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, and I had the opportunity to go out and meet some of those families yesterday. We have engaged with many of them over recent months. There has been substantial engagement between my Department, the Ministers, Deputies McEntee and Donnelly, and the Attorney General on this matter. It is an issue we discussed recently at Cabinet. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, will be bringing forward a proposal for a special Oireachtas committee to examine specifically the issue of surrogacy and to look at bringing forward amendments to the assisted human reproduction Bill that is being led by the Department of Health. We are very aware of the lacuna in the law, which was made particularly clear by the report of the special rapporteur to which the Deputy referred. The Government is very conscious that we must act. Too many governments in the past have not addressed this particular issue. Now is the opportunity to do so.

Like many colleagues, my office has been inundated over the past week with representations from parents, coaches, administrators and players of a range of indoor sports, specifically basketball, regarding the most recent guidelines introduced by Sport Ireland. When will clarity be provided to the thousands of people who are being robbed of their opportunity to participate in these sports? I ask that we have that clarity as soon as possible.

Basketball is a great sport and we will do everything we possibly can to facilitate its restoration in these difficult Covid times. The Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, spoke to me about it just before I came into the Chamber and we will be discussing it again later.

Since I raised in the House recently the impact on women and children of assessments under section 47 of the Family Law Act 1995, I have had a flood of contacts from yet more mothers and accredited practitioners in the psychological services outlining disturbing experiences of women and their children assessed under this process. One eminent practitioner is very anxious about mothers engaging in the process at all, such is the concern about how it operates. I have put down a series of questions to the Minister for Justice on the appointment, qualifications, accreditation and professional development of court assessors and their practices. In response, I received a letter from the Ceann Comhairle to say the Minister has no function in this matter.

I was not interfering in any case. I did not mention any case or any names. We are legislators and we make the laws in this House. We cannot ignore a situation where court assessors are making assessments of families within the justice system but are accountable to no one. They have all that power but no accountability. The mothers are silenced by the in camera rule and the Deputies who represent them are now stonewalled by the Oireachtas. How do we, as legislators, address this perverse situation whereby the Ceann Comhairle tells me the Minister for Justice has no function when children's lives are left hanging in the balance?

You might learn about the separation of powers, Deputy.

I was not interfering in the separation of powers.

First, more general issues in terms of protecting children and mothers can, of course, be discussed in this House at any time. However, the separation of powers means there are different jurisdictions where issues get dealt with.

To whom are these assessors accountable?

I do not think it is fair to say that this House is somehow suppressing the issue. I do not think that is the intention at all.

I did not mention any cases.

The Deputy is very clear as well about the demarcation lines in terms of the separation of powers.

Yesterday, the report by the relevant Oireachtas committee on its pre-legislative scrutiny of the online safety and media regulation Bill was published and has been broadly welcomed. However, a note of caution was sounded by Samaritans Ireland which said that, in its view, the registered providers should have a duty to support staff who undertake moderation of harmful content. The job of content moderator for social media platforms is a relatively new one, which has been discussed with the Tánaiste and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. There was hope there would be some scope within the Bill to encompass regard for content moderators' employment rights. They review awful, harmful and disturbing content in order that we do not have to see it. Does the Taoiseach consider there might be scope, before the Bill proceeds to the next Stage, for the inclusion of an element of workers' rights and protection in respect of this new form of work? If there is an alternative approach that might be taken, will he indicate what it is?

I have not had a chance to read the full report from the Oireachtas committee and do not know whether the inclusion of such a provision is recommended.

It is not, which is very regrettable.

I will engage with the Minister on the issue to see what can be done to facilitate the Deputy's suggestion. Her suggestion is very fair given that content moderators have a very stressful and traumatic sort of experience in terms of the content they review.

I also raise the issue of the new restrictions announced by Sport Ireland in regard to basketball. It is a matter that has been brought to my attention by many constituents in Lucan and Clondalkin. The new regulations mean that only those who can present a valid Covid-19 certificate or proof of recovery from Covid can train or play matches indoors. That is regardless of whether a vaccine has been offered to their age cohort. The decision has blindsided many younger players and their coaches.

While I believe that vaccination is the best way to protect us from Covid-19, it is unfair to discriminate against children under 12 years old like this. They can go to school and to the cinema, they can go dancing or swimming and they can go to restaurants and many other places, so it is not fair to single out basketball and other indoor sports in this way. Will the Taoiseach ask Sport Ireland to reconsider these restrictions and allow everyone to play indoors?

As I said, I returned from the COP26 late last night and the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, said he wished to discuss this issue with me later, so we will pursue that further. I am conscious of what the Deputies have said.

Page 15 of the programme for Government makes reference to hauliers and the need for a strategy for the sector. The current rate of fuel rebate at just 7.5 cent is insufficient and puts Irish hauliers at a distinct competitive disadvantage compared to their European counterparts. For example, the rate of rebate in France is 19 cent. Will the Taoiseach ensure that a revised fuel rebate scheme is brought forward and that the rate of fuel rebate is increased in order to provide a level playing field for Irish hauliers and also to protect tens of thousands of jobs, mainly in rural Ireland where 80% of our hauliers are based?

There were some measures in the budget relating to the fuel issue. I will relate the Deputy's concerns about this issue to the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.

I wish to raise again the importance of a new relationship and sexual education programme. We know there is a problem with gender violence and domestic abuse in this country and all the advocates for change agree that a relationship and sexual education programme is essential. We have spoken to the Irish Second-Level Students' Union, ISSU, and the Union of Students in Ireland, USI. It is essential that there be a new programme. There is worry about the timeline from the Department. It is going to have the first material available for consultation in the first quarter of 2022, but that is just for the junior cycle. There is nothing about the senior cycle and nothing that I am aware of relating to primary schools. With every school year this matter is getting more urgent to interrupt the cycle of gender violence. I ask the Taoiseach to refer back to the House at some point and to ask the Minister for Education to set out a schedule for all stages of age-appropriate sexual education that is appropriate and can help to break the cycle of violence we have experienced for so many generations.

It is my understanding, subject to checking the matter again, that the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, is giving detailed consideration to this issue in respect of the various cycles. It is important to get it right as well. It is extremely important that we modernise our approach to relationships and sexuality education in our schools and do it in a comprehensive way. We must also then work on the subsequent delivery of the programme once it is presented and ensure sufficient resources are allocated to support teachers in the various settings at both primary and second levels in terms of their capacity to deliver the programme in a comprehensive way.

The deadline for registering returns for the local property tax, LPT, on 7 November is approaching. Many homeowners are scrambling to do their registration on time. However, many people would not necessarily be familiar with dealing with the Revenue Commissioners as they would not have any reason to, while others are not comfortable doing their business online. Some people believe they need valuations. In addition, the helpline is being overwhelmed and there is pressure on the online tool. This is causing more distress for people who want to do their business. I acknowledge that the Revenue Commissioners have seen there is a problem and are extending the times the call centre is open, but we need to consider moving the deadline to give people a greater opportunity to do their business. Can the 7 November deadline be extended for LPT returns?

First, I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. As usual, he is on the money in terms of the level of activity under way in this regard and on the challenges. The Revenue Commissioners' experience is that from the volume of activity the vast majority of homeowners want to do the right thing by filing their LPT returns on time as the deadline fast approaches. The helpline is exceptionally busy at present with an average of 10,000 calls being answered every day. When customers have difficulty getting through to the helpline they are encouraged by the Revenue Commissioners to try again later in the day if they can. In addition, following an announcement made by the Revenue Commissioners yesterday, extended opening hours are in place for its LPT helpline today and tomorrow from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The Revenue Commissioners will consider further extended opening hours this week should the level of demand for the LPT service remain high. As regards LPT returns filing levels, as of yesterday evening over 810,000 LPT returns had been filed, with over 93% of these being filed online. Currently, the number being filed online is approximately 75,000 per day. The Revenue Commissioners will keep with it and they expect the number to get to well over 100,000 per day.

People Before Profit has consistently called on both this and the previous Governments to conduct a survey of energy poverty among the population. It has never been done by the Government and must be done. However, I wish to point to an anomaly that exists in the recent budget. Budget 2022 widened slightly the eligibility for fuel allowance, but it will only benefit a few thousand people. There is huge cohort of people over 70 years old who are in receipt of the household benefits package who got no increase in the fuel allowance section of that package. Does the Taoiseach ever think about that? These over 70-year-olds are the people who are most likely, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, to have to stay at home and many of them live in very cold conditions. Their payment has not been increased for at least two budgets. That anomaly must be addressed urgently. I again call on the Government to conduct a survey on energy poverty, but the immediate anomaly in respect of the difference between the increase and the household benefits package has to be examined.

One of the reasons we introduced the carbon tax was to provide ring-fenced funding-----

Stop the nonsense.

-----to enable us to deal with low-income groups and people who would require supports as a result of fuel poverty. That was the objective and that is what we are doing in the broader increases in social welfare announced in the budget. We constantly keep these issues under review. The Deputy raised a particular point, but it is not an anomaly as such. The eligibility for fuel allowance was widened in the budget.

People over 70 years old got no increase.

Please, Deputy.

Then there were broader increases in social protection measures to deal with a range of other issues.

Again, I wish to raise the issue of Sport Ireland publishing its guidelines last Thursday relating to underage indoor sport. The guidelines include provisions that mean unvaccinated children cannot participate in sport. I am sure the Taoiseach is well aware of the impact this has had on club basketball games. I wrote to Sport Ireland and its response was, essentially, that it is operating in line with Government regulations. Given that children are participating in physical education, PE, classes the length and breadth of the State and in a wide range of other sports, this anomaly must be corrected. Has the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, or the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, been in contact with Sport Ireland to find a way to resolve this?

I have answered this question already and the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, will discuss it with me later.

Has he already been in touch with Sport Ireland?

Throughout the pandemic there has always been a different approach adopted on the public health advice with regard to schools and activities outside the schools. That has been the consistent position. That does not necessarily mean that this should sustain here, so we will engage and the Minister of State has said that he wants to discuss this with me after this session.

We are running out of time so I ask Deputies O'Donnell and Christopher O'Sullivan to put brief questions.

The issue of insurance was raised previously and I wish to focus on a specific aspect. Insurance brokers are telling me that there are serious concerns about general insurance people being able to get insurance from next year and about the views being taken by underwriters in the UK. I ask that there be direct engagement by the subgroup in the Cabinet with the Central Bank. The Central Bank needs to engage with the underwriters in the UK as to what is their concern, be it related to Brexit or other issues. SAVA Insurance Group has pulled out of the market in the leisure sector. The Taoiseach is probably aware that it is a Slovenian insurance group. However, this is a more general point. I am a believer in prevention rather than cure. There is a need for engagement between the Central Bank and the underwriters in the UK.

Like Deputy Costello, I wish to raise the issue of international surrogacy. In Ireland there are couples who may have chosen to avail of IVF treatment and have gone through three or four rounds of IVF unsuccessfully and who may then have chosen international surrogacy.

We have ludicrous legislation meaning that they then return to Ireland with their child and the mother is not recognised as the mother. They are required to apply for guardianship. They have to apply for adoption. It is not good enough. I plead with the Taoiseach to ensure that international surrogacy is included in the upcoming assisted human reproduction Bill. That is how we will solve this, and we will help many couples and particularly mothers.

I dealt with the insurance issue earlier, but I will refer the points Deputy O'Donnell has made to the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, who can revert to the Deputy. He has made a fair point.

The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, replied earlier to the matter Deputy O'Sullivan raised. I am very empathetic with the issue of international surrogacy. There has been substantial work and engagement on the issue since the formation of the Government involving the Ministers, Deputies McEntee, Stephen Donnelly and O'Gorman, the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, and the Attorney General. A memorandum will be brought to the Government from those Ministers embracing their Departments with legislative proposals to deal with these issues. The purpose is to ensure that the rights, interests and welfare of all persons involved - children born through surrogacy, intending parents and surrogacy parents - are considered.