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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 9 Nov 2021

Vol. 1013 No. 5

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Dublin's MetroLink is now postponed for another decade. This is a huge blow to the people of this city which, as the Taoiseach knows, is gridlocked with traffic. The postponement makes a mockery of the carbon reduction commitments given by the Taoiseach at COP26. This was big talk for the international audience while back at home key public transport schemes get kicked down the road. The truth is the Government cannot deliver infrastructure projects on time and on budget. It certainly has plenty of form in this regard; I could cite the national children's hospital, broadband and many other projects. Why has this happened? After waiting almost 20 years, why will Dubliners have to wait another decade for the metro to be delivered?

The Deputy is not correct. MetroLink has not been postponed for another decade. In fact, the national development plan, - it is €165 billion and 2:1 in favour of public transport - illustrates our commitment to public transport under three key priority areas. These are BusConnects in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford, in addition to light rail in those cities, DART+ in Dublin and MetroLink. The focus right now is on getting all three projects to Government for approval under the public spending code and, at a project level, getting their planning application documentation ready for submission to An Bord Pleanála in early 2022.

These projects are coming before the Government very quickly so I do not know where the Deputy got the notion that MetroLink is postponed for ten years. She should not have said that. The projects will require the co-operation of everybody in this House, and on the local authorities, to ensure we get these projects through. There will be planning processes and public consultations and the Deputy will want those to be adhered to.

Unions representing the community and voluntary sector have lodged a 3% pay claim and are seeking improved terms. As I am sure the Taoiseach appreciates, these workers are the glue that holds our community together. Section 39 organisations, and home help and home care workers, represented by SIPTU, Fórsa, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, have all launched a campaign, Value Care and Recognize Work, looking for a fair future for them. Their work is very precarious. Many of them are usually on fixed term contracts and we all rely on them for the vital services they provide. They have not had a pay increase since 2009 but there is no collective bargaining mechanism, as the Taoiseach knows, to help these incredibly important workers to resolve the problems they are facing. They have written to the Taoiseach seeking a meeting. Will he commit to meeting them to discuss this? Of all the groups of workers they deserve a hearing from him.

A considerable process has been underway regarding this issue long before this Government was formed. In 2018, the former Minister for Health requested that the HSE engage with Section 39 organisations to establish the facts on what cuts were applied during the financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, period. The HSE conducted a data-gathering exercise on an agreed list of 50 pilot organisations. I will not go through it all, but an agreement was reached by the parties in October 2018 on a process of pay restoration for staff employed by the 50 pilot agencies. Pay restoration commenced in April 2019 with an annual pay increase of up to €1,000 and an outstanding balance was paid in 2020 and 2021. A further Workplace Relations Commission engagement followed in December 2020 relating to a final phase involving 250 organisations identified as part of the earlier agreement.

A payment arrangement consisting of three phases was agreed, with the first two payments to be made in 2021 and the third and final payment due to be made in 2023. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is due to meet a delegation from ICTU by the end of November to discuss these issues.

Will you meet them?

One in six people testing positive for Covid-19 over the last month have been children of primary school age. I have raised this issue with the Taoiseach several times during this session. We need infinitely stronger mitigation measures in our schools. Over the weekend the Taoiseach started to talk about antigen testing, as did the Minister for Health. The Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, started talking about it in October. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC, stated that antigen testing may be needed in our schools in the summer. That report was released in July. We need antigen testing and we need air filtration devices in our schools. We need them now. We do not need them coming up to Christmas or after Christmas. While we are dithering, Covid-19 is surging through our school population. We need these measures. Can we enforce stronger mitigation measures now? We need antigen testing and air filtration devices so when the CO2 monitors beep we can clean the air as opposed to opening the windows and having our children freeze. We need to clean the air.

The process involved in reopening our schools in the context of Covid has been informed from the very beginning by public health advice, and overall that has worked in respect of schools. I visited a paediatric ward in Clonmel, Tipperary last week. What I am hearing from public health and hospitals is that the bigger challenge they are facing in hospitals is RSV and other non-Covid respiratory illnesses among children. That is the biggest issue they are facing. Their very strong advice is that where there are symptoms, or if one has symptomatic children, they should not be sent to school. In respect of Covid-19 and antigen testing, the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, has said that in light of recent ECDC advice, they are looking at certain circumstances-----

They are looking at it.

-----that would apply in terms of where would be optimal to apply antigen testing. He was strongly of the view-----

Time is up. I call Deputy Barry.

Last week at COP26, a deal was signed by 20 nations, as well as some financial institutions, halting finance for new overseas fossil fuel development projects and pledging to divert all such moneys towards green energy. Ireland was not one of the signatories to this deal. Why not? Given the way Irish banks were used in the cum-ex and cum-cum scandals, is the Taoiseach concerned that finance might now be channelled through the Irish Financial Services Centre for fossil fuel development projects overseas? Were the Taoiseach or his Government lobbied by any financial institutions with footprints in this country before the decision was taken not to sign this agreement?

I certainly was not lobbied and the Government was not lobbied. The climate action plan sets out the need to deliver circa 2 GW of new flexible gas-fired power stations by 2030. These power stations will be needed to provide security of electricity supply and support an electricity system with a high level of variable renewables, such as solar and wind. The delivery of the majority of this gas-fired generation is expected to be via the capacity remuneration mechanism, which is part of the all-island single electricity market. This is an international market spanning both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland. The regulators and system operators are actively seeking to incentivise the development of gas-fired power stations in the all-island market over the coming years, in line with Government policy. The agreement the Deputy referenced proposed ending new direct public supports for international projects, which would include gas-fired power stations. Given the nature of the all-island single electricity market and the need to develop gas-fired power stations to ensure security of electricity supply, it would not have been appropriate for Ireland to be a party to the agreement. We just heard Deputy Kelly's questions earlier on security of electricity. We have to be balanced in our approach to all these issues because otherwise the Deputy would be in here giving out about electricity supply.

Some 10,000 people marched in the streets of Navan to tell the Government not to close the accident and emergency department in Navan hospital. It is the most important piece of infrastructure in the county and closure of that department and the ICU during the Covid crisis, while there are 1 million people on hospital waiting lists and 11-hour waiting times in other accident and emergency departments in surrounding hospitals, would be an enormously dangerous act.

I have spoken to senior clinicians in the region and they agree it would be an enormously dangerous act. I understand the RCSI Hospital Group, which manages some of the surrounding hospitals, has been excluded from the decision making on our accident and emergency department. We have requested a meeting with the Minister for Health, Mr. Paul Reid and the Ireland East Hospital Group. None of them has come back to us to say they will meet and engage and we are now forced to picket the offices of the Ireland East Hospital Group next Tuesday in support of the hospital. Will the Taoiseach direct the HSE, the Minister and the Ireland East Hospital Group to meet us and stop the process of closing down the most important health facility we have in our county?

I am assured the HSE is clear that the transition of Navan hospital to a model two hospital is, first, driven by patient safety considerations but, above all, it is designed to improve the hospital's ability to meet the needs of its population and also the future vision for Navan hospital involves more, not fewer, services

Like Roscommon, Nenagh and Ennis and all the other accident and emergency departments that were closed around the country.

I suggest the Deputy visits Roscommon hospital. The feedback I have got from it in recent years is that the range of services is far better there now than was the case.

Deal with the issue.

That is very important. I said the Deputy should visit Roscommon. I know about the accident and emergency department. I have no issue with the Deputy asking for the HSE CEO to meet-----

The HSE and the Ireland East Hospital Group.

-----the Deputies in the area. I would appeal to the Deputy in this regard. I have been through 20 years of campaigns, which are not always about health outcomes, and other matters-----

The time is up.

When I ask for the meeting we should engage with-----

Will the Taoiseach talk to the RCSI Hospital Group also as it has a different view?

I will, yes.

On Saturday, 23 October last, at the Michael Collins Centre on the Timoleague Road, Clonakilty, owned by Tim and Dolores Crowley, all Oireachtas Members from across the political divide met the Michael Collins 100 committee. The purpose of this requested meeting by the national non-political committee was to help with its urgent search for a site for a Michael Collins statue in our capital, Dublin. Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the death of one of the greatest politicians this country has even known. It is astonishing, in its own right, that no stand-alone statue has ever been erected in his memory in our capital, Dublin, for the public. This committee will commission, fundraise and gift the statue in the memory of Michael Collins with his bike similar to the likeness of a sculpture that was erected in Clonakilty 20 years ago. All it wants is for the State to find a suitable site, measuring 2 m by 1 m, for this fabulous proposed monument. I heard the Taoiseach was in Woodfield yesterday. This proposal must have been raised with him there. Will he help honour the 100th anniversary of the death of General Michael Collins and work with this group and find a suitable site in Dublin for the first statue of its type here?

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. We have a very pleasant day yesterday in Woodfield, which is just outside Clonakilty, to receive of invaluable diaries Michael Collins kept for five years right up to the treaty and during the treaty negotiations, which were being presented by the Collins family to the National Archives. I thank the Collins family for presenting such invaluable and primary source material in order that future historians and the general public can access those documents once they are digitised by the National Archives and so forth. In the course of that informal ceremony, the Deputy's colleague, Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan, raised the very issue the Deputy has raised in the House and was told by the mayor of the council, Gillian Coughlan, that the council was engaging with Dublin City Council with a view to securing a site for such a suitable memorial to Michael Collins. The Minister of State, Deputy Patrick O'Donovan, was there also and he indicated he is examining that and other issues pertaining to that period.

When the national broadband plan was agreed by the previous Government it was to have connected 115,000 homes by next January but that was revised downwards to 60,000 homes. However, we know only 2,700 homes have been connected. We both know this is very important. If I ask the Taoiseach about the delays he will say they are due to Covid. My specific question is how much Exchequer funding has been spent on the broadband plan since he became Taoiseach?

I do not have that specific amount but I will seek that figure for the Deputy. I would be concerned about that. The national broadband plan is a contract that was developed some years ago and it is being delivered by National Broadband Ireland. Obviously, Covid impacted its initial work. There is no point in pretending it did not; it did. It has made steady progress on the delivery of the new high-speed fibre broadband network under the broadband plan. It states that more than 30,000 premises are available for order-pre-order across 12 counties, including Cavan, Cork, Galway, Limerick, Monaghan, Roscommon, Wicklow, Tipperary, Kerry, Clare, Carlow and Louth. As of 29 October, National Broadband Ireland has advised that almost 273,000 premises have been surveyed and build works involving more than 125,000 premises are ongoing across the country in 30 deployment areas covering townlands in 23 counties.

Will I have the figure by next week?

Deputy McNamara anticipated what I was going to say and I may be able to be of some assistance to him. Many of my constituents, both businesses and people working from home, in the periphery of Limerick city, in places like Castletroy, Castleconnell, Drombanna and Ballyneety, have been seriously discommoded by the lack of a fast broadband service. I did some research on it and have been informed that National Broadband Ireland, the company commissioned to do this work, has been operating for almost two years. It has received €133 million in Exchequer funds and so far it has only directly connected 2,700 houses to high-speed broadband. The commitment it gave was that at the end of next January, it would have 115,000 houses passed for that purpose. That was reduced to 60,000 because of Covid. According to the information available to me, the number at present is approximately 17,000. My question to the Taoiseach is: what does the Government propose to do to expedite this process? At this rate of progress it will 100 years before broadband is extended to the rest of the country.

Approximately €225 million was allocated in budget 2022 for the roll-out of the national broadband plan. That is a massive investment in the regions and will address connectivity issues faced by rural Ireland. Some 260 direct employees and 815 indirect employees are working with build-design contractors on foot of that investment. Broadband connection points are a key element of the national broadband plan providing high-speed broadband in every county in advance of the roll-out of the fibre to the home network. As of 29 October, 388 broadband connection points in total have been installed by the National Broadband Ireland and 227 of the publicly available sites are now connected with high-speed broadband services through a service provider contractor with Vodafone. As part of this, broadband connection points are also being provided to primary schools. To date, 141 schools have been installed, out of a total of 388 broadband connection point sites installed, with high-speed broadband for educational access.

Thank you, Taoiseach. The time is up.

I just want to say the-----

No. The time is up.

I will come back to the Deputies with more detail on that.

Threshold is running a campaign for a statutory deposit protection scheme. Such schemes protect renters and have been shown in other countries to work quite well in protecting renters and their deposits. Such schemes are also promised under the programme for Government. The obvious home for such a scheme would be the Residential Tenancies Board. However, anyone who has dealt with it will have experienced delays and frustration in doing so. I am sure it would claim it does not have the resources to deliver this. When will we see the legislation for a deposit protection scheme, as promised under the programme for Government? Will we be resourcing the Residential Tenancies Board to properly protect tenants?

The Minister has already introduced legislation to protect tenants on a range of fronts not least students in terms of upfront deposits covering rent and he has put limitations on that. I will revert to the Deputy on the timelines of any further protections that are on the way.

The programme for Government seeks to reduce the waiting for children accessing assessments of need. The feedback I have got from people in Clondalkin and Lucan is that children are getting partial assessments of need under the standard operation procedure but they are not getting the treatments they need such as speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and child psychology. Children are being moved from one list to another without reaching their developmental milestones.

I received a reply to a parliamentary question in respect of a child, Jake, whose original application for an assessment of need was made in January and he got an standard operation procedure, SOP, assessment in June. The completion of Jake's final assessment of need paperwork has been assigned to a private provider. Who is that private provider? How long is it place? What is the purpose of that private provider? This process has been under way from January to November and whatever is going on it is not working.

I had a feeling the Minister of State would do so.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. He is right that we have 554 outstanding assessments of needs that need completion at this time. He is also right that some of them were outsourced because we did not have the skill set. That was done with part of the allocation of €7.8 million in Sláintecare funding.

In regard to Jake's care, if the Deputy wants to take the matter up with me afterwards, I have no problem speaking to him.

Yesterday, the Tallaght drugs and alcohol task force published a document, The landscape of substance misuse and its impact on the communities of Tallaght Drugs & Alcohol Task Force. I have a hard copy for the Taoiseach to peruse in his own time. I know he will agree when he has read it that it is a worrying and deeply concerning account and assessment.

The previous Government invested huge resources in Dublin's north inner city area. A senior public figure was appointed to investigate, report and make recommendations on what is needed in that part of Dublin. Significant policy resources were invested, key statutory bodies gave their support, agencies were established especially and exclusively to deal with the issues, and key personnel were appointed and seconded to assist in the work required. All of this was driven by the Office of the Taoiseach.

In Tallaght, we look on with envy. Does the Taoiseach agree that a similar approach is needed for parts of Tallaght?

The Deputy's time is up.

How might the Government propose to replicate that process?

I thank the Deputy for raising a very important and serious issue. The report to which he referred highlights this serious issue, which has also been well profiled in media assessments of the report. The Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, will shortly be announcing funding of €1 million to increase access to, and the provision of, community-based drug and alcohol services. That will support the work of drug and alcohol task forces, with a proportion of it to be allocated to community healthcare organisation, CHO 7, which includes Tallaght and south-west Dublin. In budget 2022, the Minister provided an additional €6 million for new measures to support the implementation of the national drugs strategy and strengthen the health-led approach to drug and alcohol use, as set out in the programme for Government.

The Tallaght drugs and alcohol task force receives annual Government funding of €1.2 million. Officials in my Department are working with the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, with a view to looking at an area-based approach again to the issue of drug misuse in areas of disadvantage.

Thank you, Taoiseach. The time is up.

We need a more co-ordinated approach, not just doing it one area by one area.

At the weekend, Councillor Bobby O'Connell and I met with Michael J. Kearney of the Castleisland Chamber Alliance to view the now closed Bank of Ireland building on the main street in the town. This branch was one of 88 Bank of Ireland branches that were closed recently. I also met in recent weeks with Shane McElroy of the Killorglin Chamber Alliance, that town having also lost its Bank of Ireland branch on Market Street. It is a huge blow to both towns. Both branches served huge hinterlands beyond Castleisland and Killorglin in the mid-Kerry area. Both chambers now have ambitious plans for those buildings. Will the Government engage with Bank of Ireland to ensure a co-operative and community-focused approach by the bank, working with community organisations that have plans to re-use the buildings as community hubs, office spaces, visitor information centres or exhibition spaces?

The Deputy's time is up.

It is the least the bank could do for these communities given what the State has done-----

Please, Deputy.

-----and also what these communities did commercially for the bank over the years.

These are often key buildings in key locations within town centres. Through the various mechanisms we have at our disposal, whether rural funding or town centres first policy funding, we certainly are interested in working in partnership with any organisations to facilitate the provision of such buildings for the benefit of communities, including, for example, in the form of hub activity that could create new microbusiness start-ups in those towns. We are very open to doing that.

The ability of schools to function well is a priority for us all. However, pretending there are no problems helps no one. Three weeks ago, I asked the Government to introduce a revised form of contact tracing. That is still not in place. We also have an extremely serious substitution crisis, which is debilitating schools. One principal gave an example of 11 rejections from the substitute seeker programme in nine days. Principals are cancelling board of management meetings and continuous professional development training. All the local solutions that are being talked about have been exhausted by principals. There are other options. Banked hours can be reinstated, lengthy block booking of substitutes can be discouraged and panels can be extended to the whole country. Does the Taoiseach accept there is a crisis in substitution in schools - that is my primary question - and what actions will the Government take to resolve it?

First, in regard to Covid-19 and schools, we have followed public health advice from the very beginning. I do not know whether the Deputy and other Deputies are suggesting we should suspend that approach. Deputies and public representatives seem to be assuming upon themselves the role of public health advisers in regard to schools.

Come on now, Taoiseach, in all fairness.

Hold on a second, Deputy. I am not finished yet.

It is very important.

We have given the Government a lot of space and worked with it on schools. Be serious now, Taoiseach, and answer the question.

Deputy, please resume your seat.

Show some respect for the support you have got from all parties on schools. That support is a fact.

What support? The Deputy's party has been the most divisive party in regard to Covid-19 for the past 12 months.

Resume your seat, Deputy.

You have been opportunistic.

Talk to the Minister, Deputy Foley.

I am not talking about the Deputy personally; I am talking about his party. You have been opportunistic, divisive and you have played it on both sides all along.

On education and schools, the cross-party support has been enormous.

You have not even allowed me to finish replying to you.

You are answering a question you picked yourself. It was not the question I asked. I asked about substitution.

You mentioned two things, Covid and substitution, and I was going to deal with both of them, if you had the good manners to wait and get the reply.

You are not one to be citing manners.

The bottom line is this: on Covid-19, I will say once again that we have adhered to public health advice. If you want us to jettison public health advice, have the guts to say it and stop trying to hide behind blaming the Government.


On the second issue, of course there is a challenge in regard to substitution. The Minister has put in place a range of measures and significant and substantive resources have been made available to schools and principals in respect of substitution. The Minister is open to doing everything possible to alleviate the pressures on principals in respect of substitution.

Thank you, Taoiseach. The next speaker is Deputy Harkin.

Is that the message to Deputies when they work with the Government? Is that the thanks they get?

Cut out the blackguarding now, you.

May I have a little bit of time to ask my question?

Yes. Deputy Ó Laoghaire should think of other people.

I want to raise the totally unacceptable backlog in local improvement scheme, LIS, applications in County Leitrim. I am not referring to applications that are one, two, three, four or even five years old. I am referring to applications from as far back as 2008 and 2009. As the Taoiseach knows, the scheme was suspended from 2012 to 2017. In County Leitrim, people are still dealing with applications submitted before 2012. There is no funding for new applications and it is a huge issue. Approximately €3 million would clear the backlog. Will the Taoiseach raise this issue with the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan?

I am not sure which Minister this is a matter for, whether Deputy Eamon Ryan, Deputy Darragh O'Brien or Deputy Humphreys. If the Deputy can specify the applications she is referring to, we certainly want to be as responsive as we possibly can in respect of local improvement schemes in rural areas. Substantial capital funding has been allocated for a whole range of rural renewal projects. I would be interested in seeing the details of the applications to which the Deputy referred.

We are running out of time. I will take a 30-second question each from the three Deputies remaining, beginning with Deputy Bríd Smith.

On 1 January 2022, the legislation governing the termination of pregnancies will be three years old and the Minister will be obliged to conduct a review of its operation. There are approximately seven weeks left to the end of the year, yet I have been told in the reply to a parliamentary question, as I read it, that the lead person who will conduct the review has not yet been appointed. There are three sections that must be focused on, namely, service users, service providers and a public consultation. How is all of that going to be done in the next seven weeks, given that one of those weeks is Christmas week?

Thank you, Deputy.

This is not good enough.

Please, Deputy.

We need that review because there are violations of human rights embedded in the legislation.

I call Deputy Niamh Smyth.

The National Transport Authority, NTA, recently launched its plan and strategy for public transport. As a Border Deputy, I am heartened to see the rail line to Navan has been included. My focus is on the Border area and I will continue to be relentless in calling for a feasibility study on continuing the disused line from Navan to Kingscourt. I am delighted that the Government has committed to doing exactly that in the national development plan, NDP.

The reason I ask is the obvious potential to improve connectivity and unlock a wealth of economic prosperity for the Border region in a meaningful and real way for public transport. I ask the Taoiseach to ensure money is allocated for the feasibility study.

We are beyond time for a citizens assembly on planning for Irish unity. The British Government does not have a strategy on Brexit or the Irish protocol other than maintaining absolute disorder. All we can hope for is that Dominic Cummings is correct and Boris Johnson changes his mind. This is not good enough. The conversation has started and even representatives in the Taoiseach's party are completely engaged on it. The British Government has to be told we cannot have any sort of renegotiation of the Irish protocol that allows for a hardening of the Irish Border. We need to deal with the reality that the only way we will deal with the British presence in Ireland is by introducing Irish unity. Is é sin é.

To respond to Deputy Bríd Smith, I will engage with the Minister for Health. He announced a review of the Act and legislation.

Nothing happened.

I will follow through on the points the Deputy has raised with me.

Deputy Niamh Smyth raised a fair point with regard to Kingscourt. I can confirm the rail line is on for Navan. It is time to get it built and developed. If we can get the line to Navan-----

We have to plan ahead.

If we can get it to Navan, Deputy Smyth wants us to plan ahead and get it to Kingscourt and I fully understand that judging by the very warm reception I got last Friday in Cavan. The people there were very enthusiastic and I believe they would welcome with open arms the extension of the rail line. Deputy Smyth's enthusiasm for that is not in question.

Deputy Ó Murchú raised the issue of a citizens' assembly. We have about four citizens' assemblies to get to. A citizen's assembly is not the appropriate mechanisms for Irish unity, the subject the Deputy raised. We have to persuade people in Northern Ireland and engage with them.

I live with a plan.

We need to engage with people and work with them. We have been steadfast in our position on the protocol. We have to stress that no decision has been made on it. The negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom need to continue. I will be engaging with all the political parties on this over the coming period.