An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

As agreed for the duration of the Covid-19 emergency, the rapporteur's report of the Order of Business shall be taken as read. Are the proposed arrangements for this week's business agreed to?

They are not agreed. There are serious questions now arising right across the State in regard to testing capacity. People could not book a PCR test yesterday in Wexford, Carlow, Kilkenny and Waterford, and we are getting similar reports from across the country. Meanwhile, the Government is dithering still on antigen testing. We need to make time for the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to come before the House to make a statement on this matter and to take questions. There is, as was said earlier, huge concern right across society at the growing rates of infection and the prospect of further restrictions. We are only weeks away from Christmas and people's inability to access testing is really, as they might say, putting the tin hat on things for people. We need an explanation for the lack of planning and lack of capacity, and that needs to come from the Minister for Health.

We need to urgently address the issue of testing and we need the Minister in here to discuss it. People cannot get a PCR test for love nor money in Dublin. People are hours and hours on the website, if they can get an appointment at all. People are talking about antigen tests being free, and they should be, but we need PCR testing and we need walk-in PCR testing to be available.

The longer somebody is walking around while infectious or potentially infectious, the more the disease will spread. People have to be able to access PCR tests as soon as possible. They are suffering inordinate delays and we need a serious discussion on how we will provide walk-in PCR testing.

We have been debating in committee the dreadful Sea-Fisheries (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, for which the Taoiseach signed the statutory instrument and which will lead to penalty points for the fishermen of this country. It is almost a year since the devastating Brexit agreement was made between Michel Barnier and Lord Frost. As of yet, in spite of many visits by leaders of this State to fishing communities to make them promises, not one hour of work has been done by the Government, civil servants and fish producer groups on the critical Common Fisheries Policy. I am asking for a debate on this crisis in the Dáil this week.

I refer to the request for speaking time on testing. We have statements on Covid-19 and the new measures tomorrow. Perhaps we could lengthen that business and convert it to a questions and answers session on the issue of Covid and testing in the interest of trying to find a solution.

I would like to add to that. There need to be questions about how we are reaching out to migrant communities and other communities in which there has not been a good uptake of vaccinations. What measures are being put in place to ensure they are receiving the message that this needs to be done? That matter could be considered as part of those statements or questions and answers.

I understand that Deputies may have criticisms and so on but some of the language being used is out of order. I respectfully suggest that there needs to be a greater sense of giving a positive message to the public about what is being achieved as well. It is all very well to talk about putting the tin hat on it and attempting to ridicule what is going on. It is not right of Deputy McDonald to do that. I do not know who the 207,000 people who got tested in the last seven days were.

Deputy Bríd Smith could not get tested all day yesterday.

The impression from the contributions of the Opposition is that nobody is getting tested and no one can get tested. We already had a good discussion on testing during Leaders' Questions. I gave information on testing and I said that the HSE is doing everything it possibly can to expand PCR testing. I remember Deputy McDonald saying well over a year ago that 100,000 tests per week was the holy grail but we are well beyond that now, with 207,000 tests per week.

To respond to Deputy Michael Collins, a debate on sea fisheries is due before the end of the recess. The Business Committee has agreed to have statements on Covid-19 and the new measures tomorrow. I do not know whether Deputies are aware of that but that debate will last 200 minutes, with a ten-minute wrap-up from the Department of Health.

Could we extend it with questions? That would be helpful.

I regret that some game-playing is going on.

This was all agreed at the Business Committee and the Government is standing by what was agreed there. Deputy Whitmore made a fair point. During Leaders' Questions, I referenced the fact that about 1,900 people turned up for their first dose of a vaccine at the weekend and the majority of those would have been from migrant communities.

According to the Taoiseach, there is no problem with testing.

It is testament to the efforts of the HSE to reach out to minority communities and those communities that may not have enjoyed the same confidence in the vaccine in the beginning that they are starting to turn up because of those efforts.

The question is on the Order of Business, not to answering queries. Is the Order of Business agreed to?

Will the Taoiseach add questions to the Minister to the end of the debate?

I will address it during the debate.

That is not sufficient.

Are the proposed arrangements for this week's business agreed to?

Question put: "That the proposal for this week's business be agreed to."
The Dáil divided: Tá, 25; Níl, 18; Staon, 0.

  • Bruton, Richard.
  • Carey, Joe.
  • Carroll MacNeill, Jennifer.
  • Chambers, Jack.
  • Dillon, Alan.
  • Donnelly, Stephen.
  • Durkan, Bernard J.
  • Farrell, Alan.
  • Fitzpatrick, Peter.
  • Flaherty, Joe.
  • Griffin, Brendan.
  • Humphreys, Heather.
  • Lahart, John.
  • Lawless, James.
  • Martin, Micheál.
  • McAuliffe, Paul.
  • Murnane O'Connor, Jennifer.
  • O'Brien, Joe.
  • O'Donnell, Kieran.
  • O'Gorman, Roderic.
  • Ó Cathasaigh, Marc.
  • Ó Cuív, Éamon.
  • Richmond, Neale.
  • Shanahan, Matt.
  • Smith, Brendan.

Níl

  • Andrews, Chris.
  • Boyd Barrett, Richard.
  • Buckley, Pat.
  • Collins, Michael.
  • Cronin, Réada.
  • Harkin, Marian.
  • Kenny, Martin.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • McDonald, Mary Lou.
  • Mitchell, Denise.
  • O'Callaghan, Cian.
  • O'Donoghue, Richard.
  • O'Rourke, Darren.
  • Pringle, Thomas.
  • Smith, Duncan.
  • Stanley, Brian.
  • Tully, Pauline.
  • Whitmore, Jennifer.

Staon

Tellers: Tá, Deputies Jack Chambers and Brendan Griffin; Níl, Deputies Pádraig Mac Lochlainn and Denise Mitchell.
Question declared carried.

Last week, the Government effectively shut down the late-night economy. Four weeks from Christmas, thousands of workers and businesses are now prevented from earning the money that pays their bills, yet at its meeting yesterday the Cabinet economic sub-committee did not even consider restoring the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP.

How does the Taoiseach expect these workers to make ends meet? Businesses also face great uncertainty as cuts to the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, are scheduled to kick in from the start of December. I ask the Taoiseach to put a stop to those cuts. I remind him that removing or reducing any supports leaves workers and businesses in a most difficult and, in some case, impossible position. The Taoiseach needs to reinstate the PUP for workers who need it and the full EWSS must be kept in place until the end of this year, at the very least.

It is worth bearing in mind that the total economic supports provided by the Government to date are in excess of €20 billion. This does not include in excess of €2.8 billion in tax debt warehousing or the €1.5 billion in loans supported through Government schemes, such as the credit guarantee scheme. The employment wage subsidy scheme has, to date, granted payments of more than €5.5 billion and PRSI credit of almost €865 million to 51,760 employers in respect of more than 687,600 workers. To date, €704 million in total has been paid under the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, in respect of 25,500 premises. The total cost of the pandemic unemployment payment is approximately €9 billion. The Government has consistently provided supports to employment and workers throughout the pandemic and will continue to do so.

Antigen tests are finally being rolled out. We have affordability issues, which I hope will be overcome. I do not want to focus on those now. We also have issues regarding how the tests are being used or should be used. I do not necessarily want to go into that now either but over the course of this pandemic, we have learned that antigen tests are best used in a serial and regular manner in places such as large building sites and big companies, where they have been used to catch asymptomatic cases. In the medium to long term, is there a role for regular antigen testing in households, and in schools and other businesses, in order to keep this virus suppressed throughout 2022 and 2023?

Yes, but it has to be done in a routine way and not in reaction to symptoms. That is the key point. The concern of the Chief Medical Officer is around the use and overuse of antigen testing. When people are symptomatic, they should get PCR tests straight away. By the end of September, more than 100,000 antigen tests were used in agriculture, for example, in food premises and so on. The higher education sector has used approximately 22,000 antigen tests and in acute hospital settings, which have PCR tests, about 3,000 have been carried out. Likewise, an antigen testing programme is in place in residential care facilities. On close contacts, more than 61,000 fully vaccinated asymptomatic close contacts were registered for delivery of antigen kits since 28 October. That is a lot in a short space of time. Antigen testing is being rolled out and the Minister for Health will outline further developments in respect of its continued use.

I raise the issue of civil registration offices. Many of them, throughout the country, are facing major backlogs. It is nearly impossible for people to register births, deaths, their intention to marry and stillborn babies. This has impacts when it comes to obtaining PPS numbers, passports, child benefit, GP cards, pension amendments and other items across a wide range of areas. People are finding that because there is no online facility or walk-in appointments available in some counties, they are spending hours every week trying to get appointments. This is certainly the case in my constituency of Wicklow. Apparently, the legislation that dealt with online notification lapsed at the end of September and was not reinstated. Will the Taoiseach look into that or put some temporary emergency measures and resources in place in order that HSE offices have the capacity to deal with this?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. A number of Deputies on all sides of the House have also raised it with me. I will certainly have the matter examined and will engage in getting some resolution to this.

I take the points that have been raised as fair.

Last week, I asked the Taoiseach to reopen applications for the PUP for those hit by the new public health measures and he declined to commit to that. Over the weekend, the work available to taxi drivers has gone over a cliff because of the night-time curfews and people pulling back and listening to the public health advice. Offices not going into work on Monday has further decimated the taxi industry. It needs access to the PUP. The same goes to those in the night-time economy and the musicians and entertainers who have been hit the worst again and again. If a bit of solidarity is being shown, they need to be given access to the PUP to sustain them through the coming period. I appeal to the Taoiseach to reopen applications for these affected cohorts for the PUP.

The Government has decided to keep everything under review but I will make a point in respect of pandemic unemployment payments. Taking the hospitality sector, for example, there has been a consistent response from that sector, as well as from retail, that it is finding it difficult to fill vacancies. One would like to think that notwithstanding the impact of the measures we took last week in terms of hospitality-----

So what, musicians should get a job in a bar. Is that it?

I did not say that. I ask the Deputy not to put words in my mouth and to let me finish. I am just talking about hospitality workers for the hospitality sector, in that there should be an absorption capacity within the totality of hospitality to deal with anybody in that sector who may be looking for work. In terms of bespoke areas, we have provided supports for the entertainment and music sector and will continue to look at bespoke ways to help specific groups that may be affected. However, schemes such as PUP and EWSS are broad-based. They include everybody and the same responses necessitated at the beginning, may not be necessities this time.

It is those affected by the pandemic.

Can the Taoiseach put our minds at rest that the recently announced €126 million aviation package, of which €40 million is allocated to Cork Airport, will not count as state aid? Some €40 million was recently spent on runway works in Cork Airport on what was described as the fastest capital project in the State, having been green-lighted soon after the Taoiseach took office. I raise the concern because for years, Waterford Airport has requested modest supports from Government which have been denied, supposedly due to EU state aid rules. The Government is presently withdrawing annual essential safety funding of €350,000 from Waterford Airport, even as it announced this €126 million package. It is hard not to contrast the fortunes of these two airports. Unlawful state aid is the question.

No, it is not unlawful. It is within the parameters of state aid. Generally, the State airports - and they are State airports - are important to the country's connectivity. They are not just specific to one local area. Dublin and Cork airports are part of the Dublin Airport Authority, DAA. Shannon Airport has its own governance structures but it has a reach to the entire west. Knock Airport has also been supported and there has been other support for other regional airports.-----

The issue is money for Waterford.

There have been a number of issues with Waterford for quite some time, to be fair, which predated this Government. Previous Governments provided supports to Waterford.-----

However, the Government is withdrawing €350,000 at present.

It is not fair to juxtapose one against the other. The reason it was the fastest runway project was the management there took a decision, rather than spending years and trying to do it while business was open----

Some €126 million versus €350,000.

-----it decided to close the airport and get it done in three months. That worked and it is worth it for other people to watch them in terms of getting projects done quickly.

Yesterday, Cork County Council agreed the budget for 2022. What has shocked the public is the Fianna Fáil-led council has agreed to increase commercial rates by 3% next year in County Cork. This is a savage attack on businesses the length and breadth of west Cork. Businesses are ringing me from Bandon, Kinsale, Clonakilty, Bantry, Skibbereen and the surrounds, that are seeking a decrease in rates due to the Covid crisis that led to the loss of business. There are also rising energy costs and many businesses tell me their electricity bills are spiralling out of control, as well as the fuel increases due to the carbon tax, among other Government taxes. If a council does not strike a rate, the Government has the right to intervene. As the Government has the power to intervene, I ask the Taoiseach to do so and to refuse to let businesses, many of which are hanging by a thread in the towns and villages in west Cork, be punished with a 3% rate increase next year.

I will not interfere in the operations of Cork County Council. That would be totally wrong. Has the rate been struck? I did not pick that up.

It was agreed yesterday, for next year.

I cannot interfere. That is that.

The Taoiseach can intervene in the-----

I thank the Deputy.

As those affected by mica in County Donegal and elsewhere face further delays in waiting for the Cabinet to agree a proper and functional redress scheme, we were hit with further revelations about the entangled relationship of Donegal County Council with the quarry site that produced the mica-riddled blocks, as well as the purchases of mica-affected homes in Buncrana. As reported by local media in Donegal last week, Donegal County Council knew in early November 2019 that the properties at An Crannla contained mica. However, this fact was not communicated to the then Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and it is unclear whether it was communicated to the council's solicitors. It also appears that some quarry sites may not have had planning permission or proper enforcement of planning conditions by Donegal County Council, yet they have been major suppliers to the council of the years. A 100% redress scheme is needed. Accountability is also needed. We need transparency to learn how this was allowed to happen. Will the Government legislate to establish a public inquiry into the operation of Donegal County Council with regard to the mica saga?

The Government's main focus is on drawing up a scheme to comprehensively deal with issues for householders who have been affected by mica. Parallel with that, we are looking at accountability and at which legal mechanisms may be available. The Deputy refers to a public inquiry. That would take a minimum of five or six years and would not deal with the immediate issue, knowing how things happen.

We have to have answers.

I have received many calls in the last few days about schools and the hospitality sector. We have an incredible vaccination rate and boosters are being rolled out. There has been confusion about the antigen testing, which I raised with the Taoiseach two weeks ago. I am glad that much information has been provided. I am concerned about how high Covid figures are. I note there is a delay with PCR testing in Carlow and quick testing is important. The staff across the country are doing their best but it is important that we do as much as we can to provide as many tests as we can.

The HSE has conducted an incredible number of PCR tests. There were 207,000 PCR tests in the last seven days. That indicates the pressure on the system and the level of infection. If people are symptomatic, they should simply stay at home. The HSE is doing everything it can to increase capacity further. It has brought in additional private sector capacity to add further to the HSE's core capacity. I will relay the Deputy's concerns to the HSE.

I raise the matter of University Hospital Limerick, UHL. It currently has the highest trolley count in Ireland, with 58 patients on trolleys. It has 56 Covid patients. Thirteen Covid patients are in ICU and 30 patients have been in ICU for a long time. That is above the number of ICU beds in the hospital, of which there are 12. There are also high-dependency unit beds too, bringing the number to 28. Of the available beds in ICU, over 50% are taken up by Covid patients. I have a question about the winter preparation plan. A 96-bed unit is going out to tender, which will take time to set up. We have to get through the winter period. Can UHL apply under the winter preparation plan, for the time from now until March, to get-----

The Deputy is over time.

-----the resources to be able to employ staff and junior doctors and to make that submission for funding to get us through this winter period?

Yes, it can. We do everything that we can to support University Hospital Limerick. It is acknowledged that the hospital is under much pressure. There are high numbers with Covid in Limerick, which manifest in hospitalisation rates, especially in the intensive care unit. The high numbers are getting attention from the HSE. We are looking at what resources and innovation we can provide to take pressure off the staff and try to help.

I wish the Ceann Comhairle a speedy recovery. Separate to the redress scheme for people who own homes affected by mica, there is a working group within the environment Department that examines defects in housing. Poolbeg Quay residents in Ringsend, who are all mortgage holders through Dublin City Council, have homes with serious defects. There are 62 homes there and this would take significant financial resources to fix. Residents did not create the defects. This is stressful for residents and affects their mental health. It is a desperate situation and the residents desperately need support. Can the Taoiseach say when this working group will issue findings and give some relief to the residents of Poolbeg Quay?

I understand that the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage has been alerted about this and about issues with a number of defective units other than those affected by mica. It is a general concern for the State. I cannot yet give a timeline on the working group but I believe it is close to finality. The Minister will publish that.

I will come back to the Deputy about the exact timelines. I do not want to pre-empt it.

People in my constituency are receiving eviction notices at a rate beyond anything that I have ever seen before. My office has been receiving calls from people in private rental accommodation, who have been told that their landlords are selling the property and are being given notice to quit. Some of these are people with families, with children in both primary and secondary school. Some are young couples with a baby on the way. Some have an illness or disability or they are carers or lone parents. What they all have in common is there is absolutely nowhere for them to go. Cavan County Council does not have the housing stock or budget to bring the vacant properties up to standard and even if it had, it lacks the builders or tradesmen required to carry out the work to meet this crisis head-on. It cannot keep up with the volume of desperate calls seeking help that it is getting. On daft.ie, there are only ten properties for rent in Cavan. At any given time over the past year, there have been between six and 12. People are competing for these properties. They cannot rent properties.

I thank the Deputy.

They are restricted to staying in the area where their children go to school. How can this be dealt with? It is a crisis.

How many evictions have there been?

Multiple. I spoke to the housing officer yesterday and she said she is dealing with those for November and December. She cannot even think about those for the new year.

If we could get an indication of the number of evictions, that would help us to work on the issue. There should be no excuse for not bringing vacant houses back into use because unprecedented funding has been allocated to local authorities to bring the voids back into use quickly. The Residential Tenancies Board should be used by those who are being threatened with eviction to make sure that all their rights and entitlements are adhered to. If the Deputy can send the details, we will follow up on that.

I raise the issue of autism spectrum disorder, ASD, services, especially in community healthcare organisation, CHO, 4, of which Cork is part. I acknowledge the great work of the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, in progressing the assessments of need. We have seen a dramatic decline in the length of waiting lists nationally but there are still a number of black spots across the country of which CHO 4, including Cork, is one. More than 200 children are awaiting assessment. The difficulty that I have is that we still allow principals and boards of management the discretion to choose whether they establish an ASD class in their school. It is high time that we look at that situation. We need to revise and review it ahead of next year's intake. What is the Taoiseach's opinion on that issue?

I take the point that the Deputy has made. Legislation was passed in the Oireachtas some time ago, by a previous Dáil, stating that the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, can recommend that the Minister mandatorily instruct a school to have an ASD class. That should be more streamlined and simplified. The Minister should not have to tell a school that it needs to have an ASD class.

Every school should take all children irrespective of need. In my view, particularly in the mainstream setting, children with special and additional needs should be looked after and catered for. I will engage with the Minister for Education on that matter.

Deputy Tully correctly raised the current pressures in regard to rental properties. We clearly need large-scale residential development, public and private, in this State. Legislation is in train for the development. Can the Taoiseach give me a timeline for the delivery of the Planning and Development (Amendment) (Large-scale Residential Development) Bill 2021 and what is his view on Sinn Féin's objection last night to 853 homes proposed for north Dublin?

That legislation is progressing. It should be, hopefully, through the House this session, but that is ambitious. I have been consistent in my view with regard to objections to good housing schemes. Eight hundred and fifty homes would have been available if that scheme had got the green light. I do not understand why people are objecting to schemes that have been worked out for a considerable length of time. This has been going on for a long time in respect of the development at Oscar Traynor Road. The scheme has had a number of iterations and it has gone through the council a couple of times. All of that is delaying families from getting homes. That is something that people should reflect on. I cannot comprehend why, in a crisis, people are objecting to schemes that have been given due consideration. Yet, people still object to them.

I too wish the Ceann Comhairle, Deputy Ó Fearghaíl, all the best. I am sure he will be back in action very shortly. Up to 9 September 2021, planning permissions were for five years. Prior to that date, it was possible for young people and other people wishing to build a one-off house to apply for an extension of a further five years. Under Housing for All, brought forward by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, this aspect of planning has been changed and people are no longer able to get an extension for a further five years. Many young people have run into trouble in that because they were not able to work last year and earlier this year, they cannot get mortgages. Other people have been hit by the increase in the cost of living and the cost of building materials. I am asking the Taoiseach to ensure that this change which, I am sure, happened inadvertently, is reversed. We need the availability of an extension for a further five years to be reinstated as currently many in rural Ireland are being denied it.

The Deputy is way over time. I call the Taoiseach to respond.

I will ask the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to revert to the Deputy on the matter because I do not have the background to the situation he raises in terms of whether there was a legislative change. I will ask the Minister to clarify the situation for the Deputy.

There are two Members remaining on the list. We are out of time, but if both can put their questions in 30 seconds, the Taoiseach might facilitate.

It is 73 weeks since the Taoiseach was elected to his position. On that day, I raised the future of Shannon Heritage with him. The instability continues for the sites, the company and, most important, the workers and the future of those sites. Tourism businesses are now planning for the future. What is the future for Shannon Heritage? When will they be transferred?

Decisions have been made.

Sorry, Taoiseach, I want to get the final question in.

Many of us welcome the news on the change in direction in terms of antigen testing roll-out, particularly when it comes to schools. Will this also be extended to the early years sector? It is vital that our Montessori services and our crèches are also protected in this roll-out.

Yes, it will, but it will be fine-tuned for the early childhood sector. In respect of Shannon Heritage, decisions have been made in terms of its future. I take the Deputy's point. We need to progress those and to get them embedded and delivered.

New management, new ideas.

Yes. That is very important.