Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

I implore Deputies to respect their colleagues. We have one minute for a question and no more than one minute for an answer. If Deputies take more, they are taking their colleagues' time.

A report commissioned by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council has again exposed the chronic shortage in refuge places for victims of domestic violence. This is a national crisis. The Istanbul Convention obliges this State to have 498 refuge places; currently there are 140. Nine counties have no refuge place. Between September and December last year, 808 requests for a refuge went unmet. In June, the Taoiseach told the Dáil that he was committed to implementing Istanbul and creating more refuge facilities but that has not happened. It is scandalous that the recent budget contained no specific commitment to provide additional refuge places. The lack of an exit route sees women and children staying longer in abusive homes. I and others raise this crisis year after year and nothing changes. What urgent action will be taken to ensure every women who cries out for help is given the protection of refuge?

I assure the Deputy that this is receiving the active and ongoing engagement of the Ministers, Deputies O'Gorman, Darragh O'Brien and McEntee. The latter has returned as Minister; before that, it was Deputy Humphreys. Additional resources were provided in the budget. The working through and the consultations with key stakeholders on the strategy continue. We want to arrive at a situation where in all parts of the country facilities, refuge and supports are provided to victims of domestic violence.

I ask about the ongoing booster programme. I support what it delivers for over-60s, under-60s who are compromised and, when we have European Medicines Agency, EMA, approval, hopefully children as well. Does the Taoiseach believe we will have a booster programme for the remaining population early next year? Would he support that? Will he ask the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, to bring forward a decision on that before Christmas so the infrastructure in place for the programme can be maintained afterwards? It would be crazy to let that infrastructure go away. Does the Taoiseach believe that we will be in a position to do this? NIAC and the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, will advise on whether it is medically and scientifically good but it is a Government decision whether to proceed with such a booster campaign. Will the Taoiseach have NIAC make a decision before Christmas? That committee took so long in relation to healthcare workers.

The booster campaign is important in this phase of the pandemic in reducing severe illness. The evidence is strong now. Evidence is emerging that administration of the booster vaccine to the over-80s is having an impact on reducing severe illness in that age cohort. I am aware of the interaction and the proper level of engagement with the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, NPHET and NIAC. We have to avoid the sense that politicians are declaring on clinical issues. Doctors want the protection as they administer vaccines of a hierarchy of clinical advisors. As I said before in the House, the expectation across Europe is that we will arrive at a situation where there is an annual booster vaccine. I see the programme expanding but NIAC keeps it under constant review following requests from the Minister and the CMO.

I want to ask about vacant local authority homes. The report published by the National Oversight and Audit Commission shows that there are almost 5,000 empty local authority homes throughout the country. Some local authorities take more than a year to re-let a home. Cork City Council, for example, takes 85 weeks on average to re-let a home. With more than 60,000 households on housing waiting lists and even more people living in insecure housing assistance payment, HAP, tenancies, this is completely unacceptable. We know the most sustainable way to deal with housing is to bring vacant homes back into use. What is the Government doing to address the number of local authority homes that are left vacant for so long? When will the Government introduce a vacant homes tax?

I have no tolerance for voids or for hanging around. Voids should be brought back into use very quickly where houses are vacated. When I came into office, I asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to focus on this with the July stimulus. The report related to prior to the pandemic. Since then, and by the end of this year, my understanding is that approximately 6,000 void units will have been brought back into use. Specific funding was given to local authorities in the July stimulus package last year to bring voids back in more quickly. That was added to in 2021 for the full duration of the year. I have no tolerance for having houses idle or vacant for an undue length of time.

I add my voice to the condolences to Austin Currie's family on his recent passing. It is a sobering thought that the momentous events that propelled him into activism and the civil rights movement that followed in the North started with housing. It is on that question I wish to question the Taoiseach. Today's daft.ie figures are a further indication that the dire situation in unaffordable rents is becoming a catastrophe. It is contributing directly to homelessness and to incredible hardship for people. Will the Taoiseach seriously reconsider the Government's strategy on limiting further increases to 2% or claiming that additional supply will address the problem? During the period of the Celtic tiger, 70,000 to 90,000 houses a year were coming on stream and rents and house prices went up. The idea that unaffordable supply will solve the problem is nonsense.

I thank the Deputy. His time is up.

What I propose is that we set up a rent authority to set rents and to reduce them to affordable levels based on people's income.

The Deputy's time is up.

You did not even give me a minute.

I did actually.

I stated earlier in response to other questions that the rent situation is hugely challenging for renters. We need more supply. If anything, the report shows the scarcity of units available now to rent. That is what it really illustrates, the absolute scarcity of apartments and houses. We need to build more, and we need to get them built as quickly as we possibly can. Everybody needs to facilitate the construction of the various schemes that have been planned that are ready to go. That should be our focus right now.

For Deputy Boyd Barrett's information, he started at 24.22 and he finished at 22.58.

The Department of Education has a budget of more than €2 billion to fund the costs of more than 14,000 special education teachers and 19,000 special needs assistants, SNAs, which supports a broad continuum of education for children.

Scoil Naomh Cholmcille. Tullydonnell, Togher, Drogheda, County Louth, has applied for supports for three incoming children with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, ASD, along with five other children in mainstream school, who have received a diagnosis during the period of lockdown, plus the six children already in the school with additional needs. The school was told it already had significant resources. It provided a timetable outlining what was needed in order to provide for the extra students.

Scoil Naomh Cholmcille has 177 students and a total of 14 children with additional needs. It has 1.8 SNAs, which means one full-time SNA, and one full-time special education teacher plus a part-time one. Can the Department of Education stand over the opinion that this is adequate cover for 14 students requiring additional resources? Children with ASD-----

The Deputy’s time is up.

-----have problems with social, emotional and educational skills.

The Deputy’s time is up.

Could the Taoiseach please ask the Minister, Deputy Foley, if the Department could examine the situation as Scoil Naomh Cholmcille needs further resources?

For God's sake.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. He correctly pointed out the enormous resources that are there – 19,000 SNAs and 14,000 special education teachers. The National Council for Special Education makes the decisions in respect of the various schools and the assessments that are carried out through the special educational needs organisers, SENOs. I will bring the issue the Deputy highlighted to the attention of the Minister.

I remind the Taoiseach that he signed the statutory instrument that imposed penalty points on the great fishermen and women of this country in his short time as acting Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine in 2020. At the same time, he was negotiating a disastrous Brexit deal for the same fishermen and women. The statutory instrument he signed has made each and every one of our fishermen liable to become criminals, in many cases whether they are guilty or not. We now find out on Committee Stage that there is another twist in the tale, as it is being proposed by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine that it will be at the behest of the Minister of the day as to what charge will be imposed on a fisherman if he wants to appeal a wrongful decision. A fee of €25 proposed by the Rural Independent Group was rejected. What is proposed now is that different Ministers can put in a small or massive fee if a fisherman wants to appeal a wrongful conviction. I ask the Taoiseach before the amendments are finalised in the Dáil to speak to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine so that a fair fee is set for all fishermen who want to appeal. We must treat them fairly with the only rights they get out of this shockingly unjust Sea-Fisheries (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.

Deputy Collins's analysis is wrong. We are the last country in Europe to bring in such a regime. We have delayed and prevaricated and that has not helped our cause in Europe. It will not help our cause if Deputy Collins's view is to persist in terms of future negotiations of the Common Fisheries Policy. We need a broader view in terms of how to deal with the fishing industry in the future.

That would just sell them out more.

I genuinely think this approach is wrong. That is why I want to facilitate engagement with fishing interests and have a proper national dialogue in terms of the bigger challenges they face in respect of Brexit. At the time, we avoided a no-deal Brexit, which would have been horrendous and catastrophic for the fishing industry.

The situation is catastrophic anyway. The Taoiseach is not answering the question on how much an appeal should cost.

It is because under the Common Fisheries Policy we had access to UK waters. There needs to be a collective strategic approach on fishing, not one based on attacking on issues that are not going to help the overall situation at the end of the day.

I wish to raise domestic violence, in particular page 87 of the programme for Government that commits to the implementation of a plan following a review of the number of domestic violence refuges in the country. That plan has been completed and we are still awaiting its publication. It is a very specific question and I ask the Taoiseach for a very specific reply, as to when the plan will be published. I understand from a series of questions that the plan is completed; it was subject to editing and it was to be published. That was in October, more than a month ago.

I will come back to Deputy Connolly with a specific time and date on the publication of the plan. As I stated earlier, the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, are working together to develop a comprehensive strategy to ensure there is full coverage and protection for victims of domestic violence across the entire country. There are areas at the moment where gaps exist, and the objective is to deal with them.

It seems that there is not any aspect of the health service that is not in crisis. Older people are being sent home with promised care hours and care packages that never materialise. Management is dealing with waiting lists in hospitals. Patients are again being asked to queue on trolleys. Yesterday, Deputy Lowry raised an issue I raised previously about ambulance services. Patients in Tullow and Kilkenny had to wait six hours for an ambulance. When will the Government engage with the management of the HSE and the Department of Health to ensure that all of this stops and that the pressure and stress that front-line workers are under will be relieved by the actions that we take?

I appreciate the issues the Deputy raises. First, there has been an unprecedented resourcing of home care packages. The one major constraint at the moment is securing the necessary number of people to work in home care. That is the only constraint; it is not resources. That is a challenge in terms of making sure that we can get enough workers into the sector from a variety of sources. That work is under way.

There will be engagement specifically with the HSE on ambulance services and on the issues that have been raised by Deputies. We constantly engage with the Minister. We just had a meeting of the Cabinet subcommittee on health in respect of that, because of the enormous pressures on the health service at the moment, not least brought on by Covid, which is having a very significant impact.

The two big hits to the health service in the last 18 months have been Covid and the cybersecurity attack, which have hit front-line services hard and put enormous strain on everybody working in them. We are very conscious of that. The winter initiative will be published this week to try to deal with that.

In the area of disability, the programme for Government commits to improving change services through better implementation and collaboration to ensure the most effective interventions are provided for each individual to guarantee the best outcomes. However, in the Cork-Kerry region, children are facing waiting times of up to 12 months for equipment, such as wheelchairs and other medical equipment, while in other parts of the country there are no waiting times. For example, the HSE has confirmed to me that in area 5, covering Carlow, Kilkenny, south Tipperary, Waterford and Wexford, there is no waiting list for equipment for children, whereas in Cork the waiting time is up to 11 and 12 months. Three weeks ago, there were 28 children waiting for equipment. As a result of raising this matter with the Minister, €30,000 was provided and equipment has been ordered for ten children, but there are a further 18 cases where the parents have not been given any date for when equipment will be provided. This is a matter of urgency. I ask the Taoiseach for the appropriate funding to be made available.

There is no excuse for that. There should be nobody waiting. No child with special needs should be waiting for equipment in the health service. That is my view. There is plenty of capital money there. They have come back in now towards the end of the year and there will be underspends in some capital areas. As a bottom line, there is no excuse for it. I will again engage with the Minister in that regard. People with special needs should get timely provision. I accept the Deputy’s point.

I raise the matter of the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Ryan, appointing two of his pals to the Climate Change Advisory Council. I remember when the Zappone scandal happened that the Minister said lessons needed to be learned from this and we needed to make sure it does not ever happen again. An Oireachtas committee recommended that appointments to the council go through an open process. The Government collectively rejected that and now we know why. The Taoiseach let Fine Gael walk all over him with the Zapponegate scandal. Now, it appears he does not have any control over his Green Party Ministers. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, is a Minister in the Taoiseach's Government. Is the Taoiseach going to keep turning a blind eye to that? Is he happy that the Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael culture has now rubbed off on the Green Party when it comes to giving plum positions to political friends or is it that he is so desperate to be Taoiseach that anything goes in his Government and he has lost control of it? Which is it?

I will tell the Deputy which it is. Look at those two appointments and contrast them with the appointments the Deputy’s party has made.

He is not telling us this again.

Just look at it. Dr. Cara Augustenborg has been appointed among four new members. She is an environmental scientist, a senior fellow in environmental policy at University College Dublin and possesses-----

It is not just an old pal. Someone with substance in the area has been appointed in terms of-----

There was no open process.

She has a PhD in environmental science and engineering from the University of California. I could go on.

There is no transparency in the process.

Order, please.

Dr. Morgan Bazilian is a director of the Payne Institute and professor of public policy at the Colorado School of Mines.

The Taoiseach would turn a blind eye to anything.

He has two master's degrees and a PhD in areas related to energy systems and markets.

Where is the transparency? Where is the process?

Unlike, of course, Jarlath Kearney, the former Sinn Féin special adviser who is on the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. I do not know the expertise.

Where is the open process? It is the same old same old.

There is Joe O'Donnell, a Sinn Féin donor and former councillor who is on the Maze/Long Kesh Development Corporation.

The Taoiseach would turn a blind eye to anything in his desperation.

I could go on. The contrast is that there is expertise behind these appointments and they went through the proper format.

No, they did not. There was no open process.

Yes, they did. They were appointed by the Government. They did indeed.

There was no open process.

Could we have order from Members, please?

The contrast is stark between the how the Deputy’s party approaches it and how this Government approaches these particular appointments.

I call Deputy Martin Browne.

I want to bring the Taoiseach back to the issue of ambulances, which came up yesterday and this morning. I will give an example. A doctor called an ambulance for a woman in her late 80s a couple of weeks ago in Cashel at 1.40 p.m. and it came at 7.40 p.m. The doctor was in such a panic due to the health of this woman that he called it. The family contacted me at 5.30 a.m. the following morning and the woman had spent another ten hours on a trolley in the hospital. I have been told that the last review of the National Ambulance Service was in 2014 and I remember raising the issue when ambulances were taken out of Cashel. The Taoiseach is talking about engaging with the health service. How long is the engagement going to last? I guarantee the Taoiseach that while it may not be in Cashel or in Tipperary, someone will lose their life because of the shambles of the ambulance service that this Government and previous Governments have created. It is going to be on their hands when families lose a loved one.

There needs to be a balance in this debate as well. The fundamental transformation that took place in terms of pre-hospital emergency care-----

We warned them in 2014.

Again, there is constant interrupting all of the time. The Deputies either want an answer or they do not want an answer. My view is that the professionalisation of pre-hospital ambulance care was one of the best things we did in this country. We professionalised emergency technicians and that whole area.

Families are still waiting.

Yesterday, when I had a substantive question from Deputy Lowry on the issue on Leaders’ Questions, I made the point that both the Health Information and Quality Authority and those who are professionals in this field believe the framework that has been developed over the years is the optimal one. I said that in the light of what has been articulated by people on the ground and by Deputies, there needs to be a review of that. However, let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater either. A lot of progress has been made and it needs to be improved and expanded upon, but there is no comparison between what we have now and what we had 20 years ago in this country.

They are supposed to answer the calls within three minutes.

Please, Deputy. I call Deputy Pádraig O’Sullivan.

They just keep knocking everything and making it out to be ridiculous.

Three minutes, not six hours.

We need to deal with these interruptions.

There are interruptions coming from all sides.

They are coming from one direction, with respect.

Well, primarily from one direction. We will deal with that in just a second. I call Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan.

I raise the issue of substitution in schools at the moment. I want to raise it in a constructive way, not with the antics that we had again yesterday from across the floor. There is undoubtedly a shortage of substitute teachers. I rang a few principals this morning before I came in. One of them was short 22 staff last Friday between SNAs and teachers, so there are very grave difficulties. I acknowledge some of the measures the Minister has taken in terms of people coming back from career breaks and job sharing to substitute but I believe further measures need to be taken. I will give one suggestion that the Taoiseach might take back to the Minister, which is that where people are contracted, especially at second level, for 22 hours a week, scope would be given so they would be able to work, if they so choose, an extra two, three, four or five hours a week supervising those classes, if required.

I thank the Deputy for the question. I accept there is an issue around substitution and that there are very significant challenges. Various measures have been taken by the Minister to date to try to improve the situation in terms of additional teachers being added, and in terms of supply panels and existing new areas where significant challenges have been demonstrated in substitution, and the Minister has appointed 100 extra teachers. I take the Deputy’s point that people would work over and above the 22 hours. I will discuss with the Minister whether that is a further step, in addition to the steps that have already been taken.

The Teaching Council has about 111,000 teachers on the register at the moment, although that does not mean they are all available for substitution. Work is under way to communicate with the entire number of those who are registered. I will take the Deputy’s suggestion and others he has made, given his experience in the field of education, and I will pursue that with the Minister.

I acknowledge the announcement by EirGrid to the effect that it proposes to achieve its targets in respect of dependency on fossil fuel electricity generation by 2030. I welcome that and support it, but I wish to point out that it requires an urgently accelerated investment programme in infrastructure. Otherwise, the targets cannot possibly be achieved by 2030. I ask the Taoiseach to use his considerable influence in that area, along with that of the Minister, to ensure those targets are achieved in the shortest possible time.

I agree with the Deputy. In order to guarantee the security of energy supply into the future, we need accelerated investment in infrastructure. We also need to work collectively across the House and on councils to try to create a culture of prioritising security of energy supply and electricity supply, with a view to saying that we cannot be putting obstacles along the route every time something is proposed. We want to decarbonise. That means more wind energy and, in particular, more solar. It also means we have to upgrade the transmission infrastructure. I agree wholeheartedly with what the Deputy is saying.

I want to raise the backlog of afforestation and felling licences. There is a current backlog of 5,000. Will the Taoiseach ensure that the Government takes action? I met a number of representatives from the Social Economic Environmental Forestry Association and it is asking for the full implementation of the McKinnon report within a certain timeframe and to ensure that every application made contains a timeframe for the processing of these licences. There is a deep crisis and we need to ensure that urgent action is taken. We have 10,000 jobs on the brink, sawmills are losing serious revenue and a lot of jobs are at risk. We also have foresters and hauliers affected within the sector, as are people who are trying to build homes. I ask the Taoiseach to consider taking those two actions I have asked about.

We are doing everything we can to try to deal with the backlog and to get licences issued and as the Deputy knows the House passed legislation to that effect. Progress is being made but we need to make faster and more accelerated progress and implement all the reforms that have been indicated with the agreement of the Minister. We are also looking at other measures to try to ensure a faster planting situation, particularly of native woodlands in line with our climate change agenda, and to provide supports to the farming community to facilitate initiatives, repairing schemes and so on that would help to avoid pollution of our waterways and grow more trees.

Last night I received an email from a leaving certificate student who feels completely forgotten about by the Department of Education as it is not recognising the true impact of Covid-19 on those who will sit the leaving certificate next June. I raised this specific issue with the Minister for Education in the Chamber on 13 May. The email states: "We missed a huge chunk of our in school learning due to the lockdown when we were in 5th year including the lack of group work and peer learning." Importantly, it goes on to state: "I think we are now incredibly behind and a lot of us are stressed and getting ourselves into a mess with the thought of the leaving cert." These students are looking for the option of accredited grades, just like last year's leaving certificate class. I am asking the Taoiseach to make that option available to them.

Last year's fifth years faced challenges due to Covid-19. We want to evolve from where we were and from the measures we had to take because of Covid-19 and we would like to think that next year's leaving certificate exams will be taking place in a different environment because of the vaccination programme and the ongoing successful impact of that programme in being able to reopen society and return to some degree of normality. There is a broader issue of the reform of the leaving certificate itself and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is doing that. In respect of the State Examinations Commission and the leaving certificate, mechanisms can be developed that take into account the experiences of fifth year students in preparing for the exam and the amount of curriculum covered so that greater flexibility, breadth and options and questions can be put, which help in that regard.

I want to raise an issue that I and other Deputies have raised countless times, namely access to medicinal cannabis. Many families and campaigners would have been joyous during the summer when the medicinal cannabis programme was to commence. Sadly I learned in a parliamentary question response today that not one patient has been given access to the programme thus far. That is a huge disappointment to the families that this treatment could provide life changing benefit to. What does the Taoiseach say to families who feel let down by the programme, who have to look at other treatments and who will probably get no treatment?

A range of people and families have been facilitated in access to medicinal cannabis through the imported licence arrangement. As to the precise reasons why people have not been able to access this programme, I will follow up with the Minister for Health to get an understanding of that. I have not looked at the parliamentary question response the Deputy got and I do not know whether that outlines why that has happened or what challenges the programme is facing.

There are three outstanding Deputies who have asked questions. We will take 30-second questions from them.

The unions that represent tens of thousands of workers in the voluntary and community sector have announced that they will be lodging a pay claim for a 3% rise. These are workers who provide essential services in our communities. They care for older people, people with disabilities and people with addiction. They also work in homeless clubs, homeless services and homework clubs and I could go on. They do this work on the cheap from the point of view of the State. Many of them are precariously employed with no pension cover or sick pay and they have suffered from pay cuts since 2008. The least they deserve is a 3% pay rise. Will the Taoiseach agree to meet their unions and will the Government agree to their claim?

Epilepsy is a neurological condition that is affecting nearly 40,000 people across the country and locals have been raising concerns with me about difficulties that people are experiencing that are separate from the medical condition. They are excluded from driving for many years while they are suffering from epilepsy. That is a huge difficulty for people who want to get to work, go about their normal lives and so on. While there is recognition by the State of the medical condition and support in the form of the long-term illness scheme, there is not a recognition of this exclusion from travel. Can the State provide free travel access for people while they are excluded from driving?

The Taoiseach will have seen the recent report from the Tallaght Drug and Alcohol Task Force demonstrating the work that it has been done with community groups and it is calling for additional funding. I am a member of a similar task force in Limerick and the concerns of this group are similar, namely it does not have the funding to carry out its important work. The programme for Government commits to reviewing these task forces. I appeal to the Taoiseach to carry out that review and to make sure the task forces go back to being community-led and not HSE-led because that arrangement is destroying the functioning of task forces and is not making them effective like they can be.

I answered Deputy Paul Murphy's question yesterday. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is meeting the unions and there is an established industrial relations process involving those groups which has been under way since 2018 as a result of a resolution of some of the larger organisations.

Deputy Aindrias Moynihan was prophetic in his comments last week about the local property tax application process and Revenue subsequently followed suit on his suggestion. He raises a good point about epilepsy and I will pursue that with the relevant Ministers. The Deputy is saying that people who are debarred from driving as a result of their condition could have access to free travel. It is outside of the scope of the scheme but it is a fair point.

On Deputy Quinlivan's question, about €6 million extra was allocated this year for the drugs and alcohol strategy. I have made the point that we need to review the overall provision of supports for area partnerships across the country. I hear what the Deputy is saying about his area.

To come back to the point raised by the Chief Whip, when it comes to Leader's Questions and Questions on Promised Legislation, the House has ordered a certain amount of time to be made available for these important pieces of business. Whether asking or answering the questions-----

There is no answer.

The point is that the time limits are often not being respected. I would suggest that the parties seek to revisit this through the methodologies available to them. Members do not respect the Chair because the Chair repeatedly asks them to adhere to the limits but I ask them to respect each other, adhere to the time and not take time from their colleagues. More importantly, I ask Members to respect the viewing public who are looking in at the proceedings of this House and who are far from impressed when they see some of what goes on here.