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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 4 Nov 2021

Vol. 1013 No. 4

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Today, the Government will set out its climate action plan and we wait to see the detail of what will be announced. I put it to the Minister that there is little point in waving the big stick at Irish farmers if the EU market is about to be flooded by environmentally damaging Brazilian beef in the coming years. The first step the Government should take in bringing farmers on board with a more sustainable food production is to reject the EU-MERCOSUR trade deal. It is bad for Ireland and it is bad for the planet.

It is a trade deal that is, at its core, a glaring contradiction to the policies and politics set out by the European leaders this week. It fundamentally undermines climate action targets and actively encourages a hyper-intensive farming model that pushes out family farmers. Will the Minister commit, on what should be a good one for climate action, not to sign up to this bad deal? Will he inform the European Commission that Ireland rejects the Mercosur trade deal?

The only person or party talking about a stick and Irish farming is Deputy Doherty and Sinn Féin. I have made clear, as has the Government, that we want to co-operate and engage with our farming communities because we know they are central to the change that has to be made. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, is well aware of the concerns that our farming community have about Mercosur and the impact the deal might have on the viability and future of the farming community. He will continue to engage with our farmers and the Commission on this.

On the very day the climate action plan is being published, given the role of Sinn Féin in acknowledging and voting for a climate crisis, I look forward to hearing from it later in the day regarding its support for the climate action plan the Government will publish. I also look forward to hearing how it can acknowledge there is a climate crisis while continuing to be against any measure that looks to make a meaningful difference.

Does the Government support Mercosur now?

Tree planting will play a vital role in climate change by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In the past five years, we have missed tree planting targets by over 15,000 ha. We have lost the opportunity to remove 5.4 million tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere. Tree planting in 2021 stands at an abysmal 2,000 ha. The Social, Economic, Environmental Forestry Association states it cannot get enough licences to plant trees to increase our forestry coverage. In light of COP26, what changes will we see to address the licensing crisis? How will the Government restore confidence so that a meaningful afforestation programme can be incentivised? Will the Government take responsibility to ensure that a bespoke afforestation programme will be fully integrated into the next Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, to ensure tree-planting targets are delivered upon?

I thank the Deputy for raising a very important matter. This is an issue that the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, is working on in order to respond to the issues the Deputy and other Deputies have raised in the House. Of course we are aware of the difficulties that exist with the release of licences for forestry. This year alone, 3,045 licences have been granted as opposed to 2,592 in all of 2020. We have, therefore, seen an increase in the number of licences being granted. The volume of timber that is now licensed is 87% higher than for the whole of last year. That being said, we acknowledge that we must do better on this. For this reason, there is a budget allocation for forestry of nearly €100 million. While we are doing better, we acknowledge we need to do more in the coming months.

There are increasing calls for greater action on incidents of drinks being spiked in pubs and nightclubs. Victims are severely affected by having their drinks spiked and this practice is also associated with sexual assaults. However, considerable uncertainty exists in this area as incidents are under-reported. Often, when individuals realise what has happened, the substances may have left their system. We need victims to be assured that they will be listened to and respected by gardaí and hospitals. This is an issue that the Rape Crisis Centre organisation and student unions are raising. This evening, there will be a rally in University College Cork to highlight the issue. What actions will the Government take on the issue of drink-spiking?

The spiking of drinks is a heinous and awful crime. I am very much aware of the threats of violence and intimidation that are caused by those engaged in it. My message to all who fall victim to that appalling criminal practice is to please have trust in our hospitals and gardaí to come forward because the issue will be treated with the seriousness that it absolutely demands.

On what the Government is doing in response, one of the many reasons An Garda Síochána will have funding of over €2 billion next year is to respond to this and other serious matters in society. The Department of Justice will revert to the Deputy during the day with more detail on what it plans to do given the event to which the Deputy referred.

This matter is not in the Minister's area but it is important to raise it in the House. Last month was breast cancer awareness month. Two weeks ago, this House heard statements on breast cancer and its prevalence. Screening was one of the main issues to emerge from the debate. At the moment, screening for women is provided at age 50 and beyond. There is growing international evidence that lowering the age of routine screening to 40 years results in better detection and saves lives. When Sweden lowered the age to 40 years it saved hundreds of lives. Will the Government review breast cancer screening and reduce the screening age from 50 years to either 40 or 45 years?

I am really aware of the importance of our screening programmes and the vital role they play in the detection and treatment of diseases that can be life-altering and life-threatening. This is the reason, in the aftermath of the darkest periods of Covid, that the Government was so determined to try to get our screening programmes operational again and to encourage all who have concerns to attend and respond to the invitations for screening and check-ups?

Given the seriousness of this matter, I will not do it a disservice by seeking to deal with a specific question without having accurate information in front of me. I am sure the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, is aware of it and I will ensure he reverts to the Deputy with a more detailed answer than I am in a position to give. I agree with the Deputy on the huge importance of this programme.

The climate action plan is being launched today. I have come across something that flies in the face of trying to get things done. There is a stand-off between local authorities and developers of solar and wind farms. When someone is trying to get a connection to the grid, it may have to be routed along a public road, possibly underground. However, before people can make an application for planning permission, they need a letter of consent from the local authority as part of the planning application. There is a stand-off where local authorities are not issuing these letters of consent. We have an energy crisis but the development of wind and solar farms cannot move ahead. This flies in the face of the climate action plan if we cannot get these public bodies to come together and find a solution.

I understand that at the start of the year, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, made changes to the Planning and Development Regulations 2001 with the aim of providing certainty and clarity regarding the process for those looking to set up solar and wind farm projects. The Department is aware of the issue the Deputy raised and is examining it. It will seek legal advice to see if any further changes to legislation are needed to ensure we get the balance right between clarity and certainty of process and recognising the individual rights of property owners. The Government is aware of the issue. The Minister and his Department are investigating the matter to see if a revision may be required to bring the clarity and certainty to which the Deputy referred.

There is a serious shortage of special needs assistants, SNAs, in schools in west Cork. In the past week, schools in Ballydehob, Caheragh, Schull, Maulatrahane, Dreeny and elsewhere have urgently required SNAs. Despite announcements in budget after budget that extra SNAs have been agreed, nothing is happening for these schools on the ground. This is an urgent situation that needs addressing as many of these children are being treated shockingly.

Some must go home early from school daily as proper help is not available in their schools. One principal told me she knows of schools in Dublin that were in the same position but got SNAs immediately upon requesting them. Why do we have a two-tier society in our education system? Will the Minister work with these schools in west Cork to resolve this crisis for school principals, teachers, staff, parents and, most of all, vulnerable children?

It is in recognition of the importance of SNAs and the difference they can make in our primary classrooms to young girls and boys that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, and the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, put in place a substantial plan to allow the recruitment of many additional SNAs next year. A plan was put in place to lead to the recruitment of many hundreds of additional SNAs in 2022 in order that we will be in a position to ensure the educational needs of our youngest are met. I cannot give the Deputy an answer regarding what is happening in the specific schools he mentioned. This does not need to be turned into Dublin versus the rest of the country issue. The needs the Deputy is referring to are also felt in schools in Dublin and beyond. He does it a disservice by trying to put it in that light, as he does with every issue.

The Minister has no answer to the question I asked.

The Government has brought forward a national plan-----

He does not want to answer the question I asked on behalf of the parents and children of west Cork.

-----of additional money for the Department and Minister for Education-----

Stop turning the issue into a political football.

I thank the Deputy and the Minister. We are over time.

-----in recognition of the fact that children all over our country need these additional SNAs.

I ask for Deputies' co-operation to continue with Questions on Promised Legislation.

In June, I made a suggestion to the Tánaiste in relation to addressing an anomaly in the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, application process around the linking of sibling applications. This would have avoided an avalanche of appeals. I was promised a response and as usual I did not hear anything. I raise SUSI again today in the context of the Finance Bill before the Dáil. Students from families on low incomes are being denied the special rate award, even though they are under the miserly income threshold of €24,000, because they do not have an eligible long-term social protection payment making up part of that income. Surely the Minister will agree that the important criterion here is the assessed level of income, not its source. Will the Minister commit, in collaboration with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, to use the current budgetary cycle to change this? It would make a big difference to many hard-pressed students and parents in County Donegal and across the country.

It is unlike the Tánaiste not to get back to a Deputy and I will certainly raise that matter with him. The Government and the Minister, Deputy Harris, are very aware of the important role of SUSI and how it helps many families deal with the growing cost of further and higher education. It is the reason the Minister made the first significant changes in the SUSI eligibility criteria for many years. He did so in recognition of the importance of the scheme to which the Deputy referred. I will speak to the Tánaiste's office and we will ensure it contacts the Deputy, if it has not already done so, with a detailed answer on the point he raised with me.

I raise the closure of the Doolin Coast Guard station in County Clare on Tuesday. This fabulous Coast Guard station opened in 2015 at a cost of around €2 million. There are 18 people working there, nearly all of whom are volunteers. Six of them resigned this week due to: "... irreconcilable divisions that have unfortunately existed within the unit for a number of years". That spake is coming from the Irish Coast Guard itself. I urge the Government, the Minister and the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Naughton, who is seated beside him, to urgently intervene. These people are volunteers. They are highly valued. They support and help people who go to see and put their lives at risk by patrolling that coastline area. The problem is best evidenced by a text I received last night, which states:

Cathal, as I write this text I am looking at rescue helicopter 115 searching for a person reported missing at the Cliffs of Moher, and no support available from Doolin Rescue.

We need this rescue service back. We need Government intervention.

I have had the opportunity to visit the Doolin Coast Guard station. I vividly remember its location, how close it is to the sea and the services and how important it is to maintaining the safety of all those who depend on it. I was not aware of the closure to which the Deputy referred and the serious issues he raised but the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, is now aware of them, as I am sure she already was. We will ensure the Minister or Minister of State comes back to the Deputy with an update and a response to the issue he raised. I know the Coast Guard station in question and how important it is to the local community and the general maritime community. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, and her officials are aware of it too.

On this day, which has particular significance as far as climate change is concerned, I raise the extent to which members of the Government, individually and collectively, might respond to the challenges ahead with a view to taking the maximum possible mitigation measures to reduce dependency on fossil fuels, both in the transport and home-heating sectors, and other mitigation measures that can be introduced and implemented without impacting on the economy.

This the reason the Government is today publishing the climate action plan outlining the plans we have to deliver, over time, our energy supply and security through a greater use of renewables. It is why we want, over the lifetime of this plan, to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and then phase out that reliance entirely. It is why we are committed to the kind of changes needed in the use of public transport and, in a careful and responsive way, working with all parts of the country and economy to bring about the change that is needed. I am confident we can do that while growing the economy and employment because opportunities will be created in all this. Our economy and workers have shown their ability to go after new opportunities. They will be fulsomely supported by the Government in doing that.

During the local and European elections in 2019, the people of Cork, Waterford and Limerick voted in plebiscites for directly-elected mayors. The people of Limerick accepted the proposal. Unfortunately, people in Cork and Waterford did not. It is over two years since that happened. We expected direct elections for the mayor of Limerick to take place in 2021. Obviously the pandemic interfered in that and delayed it. When will the legislation be ready? When will direct elections for mayor of Limerick take place? Is the Minister satisfied the powers being discussed will be enough to ensure we have a proper mayor and not just a spokesperson for the county? As the plebiscite was carried by such a small majority, will the Government establish a publicity campaign to ensure people are well aware of what we are talking about?

I am very confident the mayoral position that will be created in Limerick will be one that is meaningful and capable of making a difference to those who are represented by it. As the Deputy said, it had to be delayed due to the pandemic. I cannot give him an update on when the creation of the office will take place but I will find out for him and get back to him on it.

In his budget speech, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, allocated €30 million for new drugs to ensure our citizens have access to the best high-tech drugs available globally. I have made the case that Epidiolex should be reimbursed by the HSE numerous times in the House. It is a life-saving cannabis-based drug that can prevent serious seizures in certain cases. I have been working with the parents of a young girl, Lauren McGrath, for the past 18 months to try to get this expensive life-saving medication covered by the HSE. The bureaucratic answers I have received time and again are frustrating in the extreme, while a young girl and her family are going through a horrendous time. Now that €30 million has been made available, I appeal to the Government to ensure sign-off is given to the reimbursement of Epidiolex.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I know that as he raises it, uppermost in his thoughts are Lauren, her family and her health and well-being. However, it is because every case raised in relation to a drug like this is so sensitive and has such an impact on the family raising it and the health of a loved one that the decisions on it are made at a clinical level and by our health experts, as opposed to by any Minister or politician. Recognition of the importance of the supply of new drugs is the reason the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, and the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, made this level of funding available for new drugs overall. I will speak to the Minister for Health and pass on the information the Deputy raised to see if further information can be supplied to the Deputy, Lauren and her family regarding where this process stands.

I raise the issue of the Crossmolina flood relief scheme. I note that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy McGrath, and the Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, Deputy Patrick O'Donovan, are in the Chamber. The people of Crossmolina need progress on this scheme as we enter the winter months. I understand final approval is due to be decided on within days. We need to get the ball rolling on the construction phase. This is a €13.5 million project that will provide protection to 116 properties, which have been repeatedly subjected to flooding putting personal safety and livelihoods at risk. It was great to invite the Minister of State to Crossmolina in May to see first-hand the importance of this project going ahead. Dozens of homes and businesses in Crossmolina were hit by flooding in December 2015, which resulted in millions of euro worth of damage, with many homes and businesses now struggling to obtain flood insurance. The Crossmolina community has been waiting patiently following initial delays because of design and environmental challenges. I hope this will change in the coming days.

I understand the Minister of State is in a position to give a more detailed answer to this matter.

The Deputy will be aware from my visit to Crossmolina that this issue has been progressed by both the OPW and Mayo County Council. He is correct that it is awaiting final approval from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. The Minister, Deputy McGrath, and I both hope this issue can be resolved in the not-too-distant future. There is a lot of talk about climate change; this is a climate change mitigation measure for the people of Crossmolina and the wider community. It is one of a number of projects the OPW is trying to conclude and we are anxious to get it concluded. The Minister and I are both anxious to get it over the line as quickly as possible and finally to bring good news to a community that has been ravaged for too long by the scourge of flooding in that part of County Mayo.

The dental treatment services scheme is in complete chaos. This important scheme provides access to dental treatment to some of the most vulnerable people in the State - those who hold medical cards. My constituency of Wicklow is one of the worst-affected counties in the State. In 2017, 52 dentists were participating in the scheme. That is now down to 18 dentists within the county. The impact this has had means that some of the most vulnerable people are foregoing treatment, have to travel large distances to try to get a dentist who is part of the scheme or are paying huge sums of money to get private treatment. What actions are being taken at this point to address the crisis within this service?

I am not aware of any legislative change that is currently planned on this matter. I cannot imagine that it would be needed. I will have to ask the Minister for Health to come back to the Deputy directly.

I look forward to a substantive reply from the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Naughton, or, indeed, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, on the issue of Doolin Coast Guard later this evening because of their Department's role in exacerbating the problem.

I raised the issue of the land conveyancing reform Act previously, which sets a deadline to register all rights of way. These have been used on a daily basis, perhaps for decades or even centuries, and all have to be registered by 30 November. That has created a huge amount of concern among my constituents. There is also concern among the legal profession that if everybody rushes in together there will be lots of litigation. When I raised this issue with the Minister for Justice, I was told a Bill would be brought in to get rid of that deadline so it would not be necessary to register rights of way. We are now getting close to the end of November and I do not see any sign of the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform (Amendment) Bill. Will we see that Bill? People need to know because they either have to register rights of way or they do not.

I know this is a very important matter. The Minister for Justice has informed me she aims to have this Bill published very shortly and is hopeful of getting co-operation from the House to ensure its passage. Deputy McEntee will deal with it. The Bill will be published very shortly. In fact, I have just been informed it is due to begin its passage in the Seanad next week, which means it will be published imminently.

I thank the Minister. That clarity is very welcome.

I will raise awareness of what is a very pressing matter, that of carbon footprint labelling for produce and products we purchase on a daily basis, particularly in the context of the imminent publication of the climate action plan. I also raise it in the context of informing consumers throughout the country of the choices they are making about products that are coming in from all over the world rather than being sourced locally. The multiples and smaller retail units should involve themselves in tackling unnecessary carbon emissions by leading the way in ensuring that such a measure would be a success.

It is very timely to raise this matter, given the publication later today of the climate action plan. On the EU efficiency labelling needed for household appliances, as the Deputy will know, many of these changes came into effect on 1 March this year, which laid out the energy impact of those appliances. I understand that under the European Commission's second circular economy action plan, it is looking at dealing with a whole variety of issues relating to carbon footprints. The aim is that the regulations on, for example, batteries will come into effect before 2025. I also understand that the Commission is now considering the use of a directive on single use plastic products.

I was recently contacted by the family of an 18-month-old child who was very ill. The family contacted their GP who refused to see the child until he or she had a Covid test. By the time the parents had sourced a test and got the result, it was the weekend and the GP was closed. They contacted Doctor on Call, whose doctor refused to see the child and told the parents to bring the child to accident and emergency. Our hospitals are under enough pressure as it is, between Covid and flu. Many people are telling me that it is impossible to get a doctor's appointment at the moment. This issue has to be dealt with in some way. I suggest that an antigen test could suffice in this instance. I know doctors have to be careful in treating people who may have Covid but, at the same time, somebody will end up losing their life if people are not seen in these circumstances.

We have to be guided by our scientists and public health experts in the use of antigen testing. It is being used in many workplaces throughout the country, but my understanding is the only circumstances in which it is being more broadly used is in the context of someone having had a PCR test, having been vaccinated or having a concern but no symptoms. At that point, antigen testing is being allowed in some circumstances. It is a matter for the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, to advise us on whether it should be used in circumstances beyond that. Currently, NPHET is encouraging use in certain circumstances but not beyond that and not in the circumstances the Deputy referred to. It is one of the reasons we are trying to support our GPs even more because we are aware of the many challenging circumstances and cases they are facing at present.

With the co-operation of Members, I will allow Deputies Devlin and Wynne in, with one reply from the Minister.

I know it is not the Minister's remit, but he will be aware of recent reports of antisocial and criminal behaviour on our public transport services, be they Luas, DART or bus services throughout the greater Dublin area. Only yesterday, in the Irish Independent, Allison Bray reported on antisocial behaviour and harassment that seems to have become endemic on services. The response from Irish Rail security was that nothing can be done and they see it every day. That is an appalling indictment of our public transport services. Passengers and staff deserve to be safe on these services. When will the Government introduce a dedicated Garda transport unit?

I will quickly raise the issue of Doolin Coast Guard unit, which was stood down on Monday. This is a dire turn of events and cannot continue to be the case. We know that only yesterday there was an emergency for which the Kilkee Coast Guard had to step in. This will have negative consequences on the north Clare area in future and cannot continue. Has the Government any intention of engaging with members directly involved and impacted?

What are the Government's plans in this regard and what actions will be taken on this matter?

I agree with Deputy Devlin on the answer that was given about antisocial behaviour on public transport. It is appalling that such an attitude would even be suggested. Public transport is safe, and in circumstances where it is not safe or any kind of issue is developing, I absolutely expect Iarnród Éireann and the Garda would do all they can to respond to the issue. A working group on this matter has been in place since May of this year. I am confident, given the way this issue was raised publicly and given the Deputy is now raising it in the Dáil, that the Garda and Iarnród Éireann will redouble their efforts to ensure this issue is responded to. I use public transport. I use the Luas very regularly. I see the work that is done to keep the Luas as safe as possible, but I also see the issues that develop and can cause public concern. I want and expect the Garda, Iarnród Éireann and the National Transport Authority will respond to this issue seriously, as it is serious for those who commute upon and depend upon public transport.

On the issue raised by Deputy Wynne, I have been informed that the Coast Guard unit on Inis Oírr is currently providing cover, given the issue that has developed in Doolin Coast Guard station. We want to ensure that, if there is an issue with the operation of the service, all efforts are made to ensure the safety of seafarers is not in any way compromised. This has been raised by Deputies on all sides of the House today and I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, and the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, will respond to Deputies on this as the day goes on.

Sitting suspended at 1.12 p.m. and resumed at 1.52 p.m.