An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

The report of the Business Committee is taken as read. Are the proposed arrangements for this week's business agreed to?

They are not agreed. At the meeting of the Business Committee, a number of opposition parties requested that the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, make a statement to the House on the absence of a transparent public appointments process for the members of the Climate Change Advisory Council. The Taoiseach utterly failed in his responsibility to deal with Fine Gael in the Katherine Zappone affair. Here we are again in that he is repeatedly refusing to demand that the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, explain to this House why there was no transparent public appointments process for members of the climate council. I ask him not to rhyme off their CVs again. Nobody is questioning their skills or capacity; it is the lack of a transparent appointments process that brings them into dispute. This is utterly wrong and unfair to the members of the council. The council has a responsibility to hold the Government to account independently. The Taoiseach is bringing it into disrepute in this regard by failing to have a proper appointments process.

In advance of Sunday's family farm protest about farm incomes, it is extremely disappointing that the Taoiseach and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine have failed again, despite calls from the likes of Deputy Michael Collins and others in our group who have sought a debate in his House on the national herd. The Taoiseach has brought a new term into the language: "stabilisation of the herd". This is more gobbledygook. What he means is the cut to the national herd. Why would he not call it as it is? People are sick to death of the phrase "stabilisation of the national herd". On the one hand, the Taoiseach and his Minister have said agriculture is the cause of the problem, but on the other hand, they will not admit their solution and that of their colleagues in the Green Party and Fine Gael is a cut to the national herd, which is a direct attack on family farm incomes. This is why thousands of people are going to come to Dublin on Sunday. Will the Taoiseach be there on Sunday to listen to them and hear what they have to say?

First, on Deputy Mac Lochlainn's point, I find it difficult to accept the bona fides of his proposition. I do not believe he is interested in transparency at all. He gave the game away in saying I am not supposed to recite the CVs of the members because it does not matter whether they are qualified. That seems to be his implication.

With the greatest of respect, the Deputy's party has never observed process when it comes to appointing people when in government.

That is not true.

It is true. I can give chapter and verse on it if the Deputies want me to go through all the appointments Sinn Féin makes. All of the appointments-----

(Interruptions).

-----are characterised by the unusual coincidence that the appointees are party colleagues. The fact that people are qualified is very important. The Government has decided in respect of these members of the climate council-----

There is no process. It does not matter about the process, then.

That is the process, by the way. The Government is entitled to make decisions in respect of appointing people to very important-----

That is why governments are elected in the first instance. I genuinely think that what the Deputy is really about is-----

So there will be no debate.

-----undermining the Government every chance he can get and he is endeavouring to undermine the individuals. He said to ignore their qualifications, but their qualifications are important because they give the rationale for their appointment to the climate change council. That is why I itemised them last week for the Deputy.

They are friends of Deputy Eamon Ryan.

He obviously did not like being told how qualified they are.

I will now put the question-----

In terms of Deputy Healy-Rae-----

The Taoiseach forgot about family farms by not getting-----

Sure I did of course.

The Taoiseach let the cat out of the bag there. He thinks a lot about agriculture-----

The cat is an essential part of the family farm, as the Deputy knows. In any event-----

My God, if that is the best you can come out with-----

Deputy, please.

The Minister, Deputy McConalogue, has travelled to almost every mart in the country. He has met farmers straight up - those who might agree with him and those who might disagree with him. The feedback we have received is that people have admired his honesty, his forthrightness and his ability to be accessible to farmers the length and breadth of the country. He is not going to shout out loud and so on like perhaps can be the Deputy's wont from time to time in terms of using colourful phrases and so on like that-----

-----but he is sincere about the issue of making sure we have sustainable farming into the future. That is the correct approach to take. In terms of the next decade and how we position food production in this country in a way that manages to reduce the carbon emissions, I think we have created a roadmap now for climate change and for sustainable farming that makes sense. I am not clear on the Deputy's position on climate change at all. I know some people in the Rural Independent Group seem to be against the very concept of climate change and seem to be in climate denial. I am not saying the Deputy is, but I am saying others in his group are.

(Interruptions).

They do not believe in the climate change view.

I live in the real world. Why are thousands of people-----

What is the real world? The real world is the world of climate change.

Why are thousands of people coming to Dublin on Sunday?

Deputies, please. Time is up.

Because-----

We have to move on.

Because they are worried.

I have no issue with people being worried but I can assure the Deputy we need to be balanced in how we comment on it as well and not be given to sloganeering and making assertions that are not true. I have seen all his presentations on it.

Question put: "That the proposal for this week's business be agreed to."
The Dáil divided: Tá, 23; Níl, 16; Staon, 0.

  • Brophy, Colm.
  • Bruton, Richard.
  • Carey, Joe.
  • Chambers, Jack.
  • Collins, Niall.
  • Dillon, Alan.
  • Duffy, Francis Noel.
  • Fitzpatrick, Peter.
  • Foley, Norma.
  • Griffin, Brendan.
  • Higgins, Emer.
  • MacSharry, Marc.
  • Madigan, Josepha.
  • Martin, Micheál.
  • O'Brien, Joe.
  • O'Connor, James.
  • O'Donnell, Kieran.
  • O'Sullivan, Christopher.
  • O'Sullivan, Pádraig.
  • Ó Cathasaigh, Marc.
  • Ó Cuív, Éamon.
  • Shanahan, Matt.
  • Troy, Robert.

Níl

  • Buckley, Pat.
  • Cairns, Holly.
  • Clarke, Sorca.
  • Collins, Michael.
  • Harkin, Marian.
  • Healy-Rae, Michael.
  • Kelly, Alan.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • McDonald, Mary Lou.
  • Mitchell, Denise.
  • Murphy, Catherine.
  • Pringle, Thomas.
  • Quinlivan, Maurice.
  • Ryan, Patricia.
  • Sherlock, Sean.
  • Smith, Bríd.

Staon

Tellers: Tá, Deputies Jack Chambers and Brendan Griffin; Níl, Deputies Pádraig Mac Lochlainn and Denise Mitchell.
Question declared carried.
Sitting suspended at 3 p.m. and resumed at 3.12 p.m.

Members have one minute each, at most, to put a question and there is one minute, at most, for a reply. I intend to adhere to that.

Insurance companies in Ireland are still ripping off their customers. The industry pocketed huge savings during the pandemic. In 2020, the cost of claims to insurance companies fell by 20%, but the price of premiums for customers fell by only 7% and the average rebate was a mere €17. The cost of claims is set to fall again this year but it is very clear insurance companies cannot be trusted to do the right thing and will have to be forced to pass savings to hard-pressed customers. Legislation introduced by my colleague Deputy Pearse Doherty requires insurers to pass savings to customers euro for euro, but the Government has blocked this legislation for nine months while also frustrating Sinn Féin's attempts to ban the loyalty penalty. The Government has let consumers down and the insurance industry off the hook. When will the Government end its blocking of Deputy Doherty's Bill and give ripped-off insurance customers a break?

The Government has a comprehensive programme relating to insurance reform, with the key objective of getting premiums lowered. I accept that the industry must do more to meet the needs of consumers and to get prices down. The Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, has outlined a range of initiatives that he is undertaking in respect of insurance reform and legislation. The Deputy will know about the Judicial Council and the work on awards being reduced. There has been a significant reduction in awards in the courts and that should lead to a reduction in the cost of premiums. It is something the Government will continue to focus on, as well as reform of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, PIAB, system.

The Taoiseach will announce new measures this evening with regard to fighting Covid-19. It seems, unfortunately, we are going in a certain direction. I have a question about schools, about which I have a deep concern. The Taoiseach and I share the view that schools and early years education are a top priority. Owenabue school in the Taoiseach's constituency has told many of the parents of its children not to send the children to the school because it does not have enough teachers. I am hearing similar stories in this regard from all over the country. My wife is a teacher. Pressures are everywhere. There was a situation in my daughter's class recently where there was less than a handful of them in.

Schools will fall over, so to speak. Given the complication RSV causes, will the Government consider prioritising front-line workers such as gardaí, retail workers, transport workers and, most of all, teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs, and early years workers for boosters, primarily so that the schools system does not fall over? I ask the Taoiseach to consider this seriously.

We are both agreed that throughout the pandemic we wanted to keep the schools open, basically for the health and well-being of children. Children are healthiest and it is best for their self-development when they are in a school setting with their friends. The public health advice is that schools are safe for children. On the wider issue of substitution, there is a very good reason for teachers being out of school. The Minister has created additional panels of substitute teachers, far more than would normally be the case.

However, they are not there.

There are challenges, and I am not denying that for one moment.

Can we boost them?

Earlier I outlined the programme for the boosters. NIAC advises the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, who in turn advises the Minister in respect of who is eligible for a booster. It is an age cohort plus those with underlying conditions and those who are immunosuppressed. As of yesterday, those aged 50 and older are now eligible.

I know I do not need to convince the Taoiseach of the gender balance problem in Irish politics. Of the 18 Deputies representing our home county of Cork, I am the only woman and my colleague, Councillor Clare Claffey, is the only female councillor on Offaly County Council. If we are serious about increasing the number of women in Irish politics, we need to identify the barriers and remove them. The lack of any maternity or adoptive provisions is a glaringly obvious barrier. I first raised this with the Taoiseach in July of last year. In his response, he completely agreed with me and committed to finding a way for public representatives to take maternity and parental leave. Fifteen months later I stand before him again, but this time with a Bill in my hand which would extend maternity, parental and adoptive leave to local authority members throughout the country. Will the Taoiseach please tell me that I can count on him and his Government to support the Bill?

I see the need for the greater availability of maternity leave and paternity leave for public representatives more generally. In fairness, the Minister, Deputy McEntee, adopted a pioneering approach to that and the Government managed to facilitate it. Recently the Minister, Deputy Harris, took paternity leave, which is the correct and proper thing to do. I have not yet seen the Deputy's Bill.

I will leave it with the Taoiseach.

We will give the Bill due consideration and will look at it in a constructive light. I would have thought that at local level there should be more flexibility to facilitate maternity leave for councillors.

With the decision to impose a curfew after midnight on nightlife and the recommendations to work from home from Friday, many people who work in those areas or who depend on those areas for work will lose income and, in many cases, or lose their jobs outright. Against that background, it is completely unacceptable that today we should be reducing the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. Not only should we not cut the PUP but also we should restore the PUP and income payments for those who will be significantly affected by this latest turn of events with Covid-19.

The decisions we will be announcing will not be very impactful on employment. Working from home, as a practice, has been demonstrated in earlier parts of the pandemic to be achievable with minimal impact on the economic performance and productivity. I acknowledge it will be challenging for some employers and SMEs in particular. I do not believe there will be reduced employment as a result of the working from home decision. Since we reopened the economy and reopened society, all the feedback we have received has been on the number of vacancies that are not being filled. The consistent message from people in hospitality, personal services and a range of different employments is that they are finding it very difficult to recruit. Therefore, there are no plans to change the direction of travel in respect of the pandemic unemployment payment.

During Leaders' Questions on 19 October, I questioned the Taoiseach on his commitment to deliver 24-7 cardiac care in the south-east region. He informed me then that recruitment was taking place to expand hours, that money was being provided, that service expansion was happening and that the service could build towards operating on a 24-7 basis. Further to responses to parliamentary questions on these issues, I can now confirm that no recruitment of cardiac technical personnel has taken place since 2018 no funding for cardiac expansion has occurred, and no increased nursing or radiography positions have been approved. In fact, the medical accreditations being requested for a new cardiology post are similar to asking a ministerial driver to provide Formula One racing experience, further designed to frustrate recruitment. I believe the Taoiseach's promises to the people of the south east to deliver a 24-7 service are being deliberately frustrated. What does he plan to do about it? I invite him to correct the record of the Dáil which he inadvertently misled.

On 19 October, we discussed the cardiac programme in Waterford. I received information from the Department of Health and the HSE which I related to the Deputy on that occasion. The funding has been provided. The policy decisions have been taken. I will check on what the Deputy has said today and will come back to him on it. The policy decision has been taken in respect of the expansion of the service and recruitment.

The last recruitment was in 2018.

I am just telling the Deputy what the case is. More than 4,500 people have been recruited this year alone and 6,000 in the previous year

Not for this service.

I will check that. They should be.

The Taoiseach does not need to check it.

I have said we will go back to the-----

Several concerned residents of Kinsale, Riverstick, Belgooly and surrounding areas have contacted me and staff in my office over the past 48 hours after it emerged that Coillte is planning to sell Ballymartle Woods. In an era when we are told we need to protect our environment and green spaces, why is Coillte, a State agency, proposing to sell these local woodlands? Many local residents use this amenity every day. Over the past 48 hours I have been told stories of the benefits of these woodlands which people use as a green space and as an amenity for walking and recreation. People find it good for their mental health and well-being. All have commented on the necessity to maintain as many green spaces in the west Cork area as possible. On behalf of the local residents, I ask the Taoiseach to intervene personally to stop Coillte from selling Ballymartle Woods and to retain these woodlands as a public amenity and green space.

I do not know whether the Deputy has spoken to Coillte about this. I will certainly take it up. I do not believe we should be selling woodlands. I do not know the background to this or the circumstances. I will certainly follow it up with Coillte and will revert to the Deputy.

Over recent months, I have been speaking to those in car dealerships in Donegal about problems they are facing. Because of the severe difficulties they are confronting with Brexit and the microchips shortage, car sales are in a perfect storm with lack of supply. Based on international reports, it is likely that the microchip shortage will last for the next year and possibly into 2023, which leads to the very real risk of job losses over the next six months if no action is taken. It will mean substantial job losses in every county in the country. Does the Government have any plans to implement a scheme to protect jobs in the car industry?

It is accepted there is a significant global supply chain issue with microchips, impacting car manufacturing and the supply of cars in the marketplace. We do not intervene in every sector in respect of what transpires in given market situations. When the Deputy talks of a scheme to protect jobs, is he saying it should be for the salespeople of a dealership or what is he proposing?

Every dealership in the country is losing jobs.

If he forwards his ideas to me, we will look at them.

Community employment schemes are designed to help those in long-term unemployment and as we know, they are absolutely brilliant for the community. There is a deep sense of frustration felt by community employment supervisors and assistant supervisors in trying to secure an occupational pension. Promises were made but I am afraid there has been no movement on this. My understanding is the State hires these supervisors and to all intents and purposes employs them.

It is my view that the State must accept a level of responsibility here. A resolution must be found without further delay. These are really hard-working people. I met some of the community employment supervisors at the weekend and it seems this process is going on and on. I ask the Taoiseach to find a solution and get this sorted.

The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and his officials have been involved in negotiations with those representing community employment supervisors. What was considered a breakthrough was arrived at in the matter, and it was a significant advance on anything achieved before in respect of that issue. I will revert to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and alert him to what the Deputy said. I thought the offer that had been made would bring this closer to a resolution.

I will raise two related matters concerning Covid-19. There is a six-month interval between the second vaccination and the proposed booster. Has the Government considered asking the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, to see if the interval can be brought back to five months? It is officially six months but the committee indicated it will consider an interval of five months. The Taoiseach has already referenced a cohort, including those who got the AstraZeneca vaccine, and through no fault of their own they will get a booster much later than people who have got Pfizer, Moderna or Janssen shots.

There are 95 people on trolleys at University Hospital Limerick today, which is the highest number ever recorded. There are 45 people in the hospital with Covid-19 and nearly 30%, or 13, are in intensive care. I acknowledge the phenomenal work by staff at University Hospital Limerick. If they make a proposal for further funding under the winter plan, will it be granted?

Time is up and the Deputy should only be asking one question.

We have received advice from NIAC, which has been the system from the outset in respect of recommendations on vaccination. The European Medicines Agency, EMA, is recommending the five to six-month interval and nothing lower than that. The EMA has recommended that anybody over 18 may get it. In addition to prior recommendations, NIAC has recommended a booster dose of an mRNA vaccine in order of priority for healthcare workers, those aged 16 to 59 years with underlying conditions as listed in table 5.a.2 of chapter 5.a of Covid-19 immunisation guidelines for Ireland, and all residents in long-term healthcare facilities and those aged 50 to 59 years. There are further issues in terms of-----

I asked specifically about a five-month interval.

I know that. The intervals of five or six months are as recommended so far.

Would the Taoiseach-----

I call Deputy Alan Dillon.

I joined many nurses yesterday who were members of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, at Mayo University Hospital as they took part in a lunchtime protest outside the hospital to highlight what they termed excessive workloads and staffing pressures. These nursing staff outlined that they are unable to take adequate breaks or use annual leave due to their excessive work conditions.

Despite formal grievances previously raised with the Saolta University Health Care Group, no improvements have been made to working conditions. From speaking with consultants, doctors, patients and everyone at Mayo University Hospital, the position has never seemed as bad as now. As someone who cares deeply about our hospital and the unwavering dedication of its staff, it pains me to say that. It is our hospital and it belongs to the people of Mayo and those it serves. The shocking stories of patient experiences I have heard through my office and from meeting constituents are infuriating. It is time for either an audit or review of Mayo University Hospital and for a special delivery unit to be put in place to ensure issues at the hospital can be addressed once and for all.

I take the points raised by the Deputy. The hospital currently employs staff of approximately 1,280.6 whole-time equivalents, with more than 200 additional contracted services staff. A significant overseas nursing recruitment campaign is being actively progressed by the Saolta University Health Care Group with the intention of having significant additional nursing resources coming into the service within the next three months. Interviews are ongoing and it is expected the first group of nurses from this process will start work in January 2022.

There were 55 positions approved for Mayo University Hospital, with 29 scheduled to arrive in January and 26 in March. In addition, 30 nursing staff are included in a current local recruitment campaign. It is hoped these will take up their positions in the next two months. These will include eight critical care staff and five senior nursing posts. The hospital has also increased its healthcare assistant staff by 70% and there have also been appointments to other grades.

I am afraid time is up.

I raise today a consumer matter arising from Brexit. As the Taoiseach knows, many people at this time of year and throughout the pandemic have been ordering items online and having them delivered usually through .ie websites. They find when they are about to receive the items, there is a huge charge placed on the order and the items are either held up in customs or somewhere else. We know the basis of this is Brexit but the resolution must be found somewhere here. There is need for additional regulation of websites that use .ie domains so at least when consumers order their goods they are, at minimum, warned from where the goods are coming and there may be additional charges. Countless people have contacted me who have spent money on goods and who have found they cannot get them until they spend more money. If they refuse to get the goods, they lose everything. It is a serious matter for many consumers who are really annoyed and frustrated by this. We can blame Brexit as long as we like but we must come up with a solution. There should be additional regulation of those websites.

The Deputy is correct in saying Brexit is the fundamental cause of many challenges and remains problematic in causing supply chain disruption, increased costs and charges if products come from third countries outside the European Union via Great Britain, for example. People may not be aware of those costs initially. I have no difficulty with the Deputy's points and perhaps the relevant Oireachtas committee could give consideration to proposals. I will speak with the Minister in respect of consumer protection in this field and it is a fair point.

As the Taoiseach knows, there is a major issue with An Bord Pleanála not delivering decisions in good time. There is a statutory objective, for example, of four months, and in many cases the decisions are not given within that time. I have a case of a person who applied for leave to apply for substitute consent over nine months ago and does not yet have a decision. Major infrastructure projects are taking years.

There is a planning and development (amendment) (No. 2) Bill on the priority legislative list. When will it be published and is it intended to put statutory limits on the amount of time An Bord Pleanála can take to come to decisions on all the different types of planning applications it handles?

I agree with the Deputy's comments on the length of time it is taking to get planning decisions and major infrastructural works done in the country. To that end there is a major review under way and over the next 12 months something that would ordinarily take three or four years will be done in one year. That will be led by the Attorney General and take in the entire planning code in order to get a more streamlined system.

There was a specific point around timelines and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage is bringing forward legislation where the intention is to have specific timelines in which An Bord Pleanála will give consideration to projects. I am not sure if it is the Bill to which the Deputy referred but I will come back to him with the specific legislation relevant to the question he asked.

As we speak there is a major crisis in our hospitals. There is the term "bed blocker", which is very offensive and derogatory, used to describe people who have no choice but to stay in hospital because there is no social or care package in place for them.

As we speak, Ms Mary Corrigan, a woman in her 60s from Ballyfermot, is discharging herself against medical advice from St. James's Hospital. She has been there for eight months and was told in June that she is perfectly fine to go home but a care package for her must be put in place. They have not been able to secure one. Mary is not alone and there are hundreds of people up and down the country having to stay in hospital because they cannot get home care packages.

This system is broken and in absolute crisis. This Government must address it immediately. I noticed recently a Minister of State behind the Taoiseach, Deputy Damien English, made changes to the employment permit system for workers outside the European Economic Area so they could come in to work in construction, meat plants, opticians and horticulture.

Where are the home care workers who are desperately needed for hundreds of people throughout the country?

To be fair to the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Butler, about 5 million extra additional home care hours were secured in last year's budget. The waiting times went down and the flow through the hospitals was significantly improved and enhanced. The issue now is to get workers. The funding is there-----

What do you do about bringing in workers?

You fast-track and accelerate the work permits system, and you liberalise it.

They are not included.

Health is included in respect of that and bringing people in to meet the-----

No, it is not.

I will check that again. Three priority areas are health, construction, and technology.

Page 115 of the programme for Government contains a promise to amend the Organisation of Working Time Act, thereby bringing the Defence Forces within the scope of its provisions. What progress has been made with this? Will the scope include retained firefighters?

As the Deputy knows, the commission on the future of the Defence Forces is currently meeting to consider the organisation of the Defence Forces into the future. I will revert to the Minister on the question asked by the Deputy. There have always been exceptions pertaining to Defence Forces personnel in a range of areas because of the nature of their work and service to the State. I will come back to the Deputy on this.

Page 114 of the programme for Government refers to the support of our Defence Forces and, in particular, singles out those who have served with pride and distinction overseas. One such corporal, who served in Eritrea, Liberia, Kosovo, Lebanon and other places, and whose father gave his life in Lebanon in 1987, was subject to a death threat from a superior in 2017 that was not adequately investigated. The corporal in question was facilitated to work at a different location from his alleged threatener, but that situation changed in recent times when he was ordered back to work. Since then, 18 October, I have been in correspondence with the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, Lieutenant General Seán Clancy, and the Minister for Defence, Deputy Simon Coveney. I have corresponded with them on three other occasions since then.

Sadly, in parallel and far from acting on this in the appropriate fashion, further discrimination has been carried out against this man, who is obviously suffering greatly with stress and mental health by being forced to go back to work alongside the alleged threatener, which is totally unacceptable. I have in my hand correspondence he received telling him that he was AWOL and that his pay would be stopped. In an era when we are, rightly, looking into issues raised by the Women of Honour, I am sure the Taoiseach will agree with me that it is not acceptable behaviour when a Member of the Oireachtas brings an issue to their attention but they continue not to investigate it. Will the Taoiseach use his good offices to contact the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces today, and the Minister for Defence, to have this discrimination investigated and rectified without delay?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue in the House. I am not aware of the background to this case. I will raise it with the Minister for Defence in the first instance and endeavour to get the background to the case, and ensure that justice is applied and fair and due process is applied. The allegations the Deputy has made on behalf of the individual are serious. The situation merits investigation and resolution in a sensible and proper way for the individual concerned.