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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 2 Dec 2021

Vol. 1015 No. 2

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

The programme for Government committed to examining the issue of latent building defects within the first year. A working group was set up and the expectation was that it would report to the Government in June of this year. Unfortunately, that deadline has been missed. As a consequence, tens of thousands of homeowners across the State will tonight sleep in homes with significant fire safety and other structural defects. In many cases, they face bills of between €15,000 and €60,000 to fix problems they did not cause and, in almost all cases, they cannot afford to pay to remedy. Will the Tánaiste give an indication of when he expects the working group to report to the Government on its deliberations? More important, when will the Government put in place a latent defects redress scheme for these struggling families?

I thank the Deputy. This is an important issue in my constituency as well as his. Many people, particularly living in apartments and high-density developments, face enormous bills which they often cannot afford to repair their homes and are stuck in a terrible limbo, even leaving aside the safety issues. The inability to sell on or move on until these defects are fixed is a huge problem for people living in high-density developments, in particular. I do not have a date for the publication of the report but I will raise it with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to let him know the Deputy raised it in the Chamber and ask him to contact the Deputy on it.

I return to an issue that was raised by Deputy Kelly yesterday during Questions on Promised Legislation and which I raised this morning with the Minister for Health. It relates to the Health (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill, which is before us today. We have concerns regarding the definition of "exempted traveller" and how that is being interpreted in reality. We would like an explicit statement from the Tánaiste, the Minister or the Government in relation to women having to travel to seek a termination. In our experience, many women have been stopped from travelling this year. They have not been included in the definition of "exempted traveller". We have an amendment before the House this evening which we will push to a vote but we seek clarification from the Government that women in possession of a medical certificate from a registered medical practitioner or person holding an equivalent qualification outside the State to the effect that she has an unavoidable, imperative and time-sensitive reason for travelling and complies with any request of a relevant person will be included in the definition. Can the Tánaiste be clear on that, please?

I will follow that up with the Minister for Health during the day. The point behind mandatory hotel quarantine, of which I am not a big fan, is that people are quarantined for ten to 14 days because they may be carrying a new variant of the virus. Unfortunately, while testing is very accurate, it is not 100%. That is the purpose of mandatory hotel quarantine and, for that reason, the definition of exempted travellers is narrow. It tends to be just people involved in, for example, being cabin crew, pilots or hauliers. However, it can be wider than that. People who have to travel abroad to seek medical treatment that is not available in the country, in my mind, fit into an appropriate category. I will raise it with the Minister and I am sure he will come back to the Deputy on it.

Briefly, on that issue, I suppose it highlights the need for the repeal review to happen.

Large trawlers of over 18 m are operating in inshore waters. This is an unsustainable practice. It is a significant issue for inshore fishers, the marine tourism sector and those concerned about coastal ecosystems. I am still regularly getting reports of those large vessels operating extremely close to the shore around west Cork and beyond. As the Tánaiste will know, this form of fishing is supposed to be banned. The Government banned it, but due to several court rulings against the Department it is now permitted. I acknowledge that the Minister with responsibility for the marine has previously appealed the court decision but, in essence, we are back to square one. What is the Government's plan to address this issue and will it immediately establish a process to put in place a statutory instrument banning this form of fishing?

I thank the Deputy. I am not sure if legislation or a statutory instrument is pending, but I will ask the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, to contact the Deputy directly.

I am aware that the Tánaiste, the Taoiseach, the Minister for Health, all members of the Cabinet and every Member of this House has received expert legal counsel from senior counsel, Stephen Dodd, in regard to the national maternity hospital and the possibility of it being constitutional for the State to compulsorily purchase the lands on which it sits. The senior counsel argues that the matter is of such importance to the State, there is a legitimate State interest in achieving certainty which can only be secured by the State having full control through ownership of the relevant land and assets currently in the ownership of the Religious Sisters of Charity. Is the Tánaiste aware of the legal opinion? Has the Government discussed it and when will we see movement on this issue?

I am aware of it, but I have not yet had an opportunity to read it from cover to cover as it is about 60 pages long. The argument is that it could be legally possible for the State to purchase that land by CPO. I do not doubt that. I have said in this House previously that compulsory purchase of the land is an option, but it is an option that has consequences. It could delay the project and that would have a negative impact on women, children and staff and it might also result in the loss of co-operation with the project on the part of St. Vincent's Hospital. We need to bear in mind that this is not a new stand-alone hospital, or a new hospital that is just connected by a corridor through the air; this is a new hospital that will be integrated floor-by-floor with St. Vincent's Hospital. Even if the CPO was pursued, and it could be pursued, you would have to consider what the unintended consequences might be in terms of delaying the project or losing the co-operation of St. Vincent's Hospital, which is essential to the integration of the two hospitals.

I note the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, is in the Chamber. I want to raise the temporary assistance payment scheme, TAPS, which was in place for the nursing homes. In light of the intensified infection prevention measures now required in nursing homes, especially during this month in the lead-up to Christmas and beyond where additional precautions and staff will be required, will the Minister consider the reintroduction of TAPS as a temporary measure to get the nursing homes over the particular threat over the festive season of December and January, which is a lonely time within the nursing home setting such that people would like to visit? I would welcome the Minister of State's thoughts.

I thank the Deputy for the question and his continued support of the nursing home sector. As he will know, the temporary assistance payment scheme was established in April 2020 as a temporary measure to support nursing homes during the pandemic. This scheme was extended twice. It was announced in September 2020 that the funding would cease.

Funding of €134.5 million has been made available to date to the nursing home sector. There are outbreaks in 52 nursing homes, out of an approximately 575 nursing homes. The outbreak assistance payment is and will continue to be made available up to the end of the year to the nursing homes currently experiencing an outbreak, of which, as I mentioned, there are 52. The Deputy will be aware that there is another suite of measures available to nursing homes, including 23 Covid response teams on the ground, personal protective equipment, support for staff accommodation and access to infection prevention and control training, all of which are free of charge. We also have the serial testing programme.

Numerous school bus operators nationally and from west Cork have contacted me in the past two weeks. They are concerned that Bus Éireann has decided that all school bus services will return to pre-Covid operations and that all extra buses provided during Covid to allow for social distancing of children will no longer be provided. Many of these school bus operators are very worried that if services operate as they did pre-Covid there will be a danger to bus drivers and students. In a week where primary school children are being forced to wear masks in school regardless of what ailments they have, and more draconian measures are being considered in this country, will the Government work with Bus Éireann to ensure that services put in place owing to Covid, and which have operated throughout Covid, remain in place for the next number of months at least?

I thank the Deputy for the question. The most important aspect in regard to education is that the schools remain open. In that regard, it is imperative that infection and prevention control measures remain in place on school transport. My understanding in regard to school transport is that it has reverted to 100% capacity. There are bus escorts in the area of special education, which is under my remit. Full personal protective equipment is provided sanitisation protocols are in place and there is no difficulty in terms of funding. I will bring this matter to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Foley, as it is under her remit.

On Tuesday last, with much fanfare, the Government announced the so-called enhanced mica redress scheme, which is a dubious title, to say the least. There is a promise of primary legislation to follow in terms of implementation of that scheme. While I welcome the inclusion of elements of rental, storage and, vitally, mental health support, for which I have repeatedly called, the elephant in the room is the sliding scale, which was part of the announcement made by the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. He failed to mention this element during his engagement with the mica campaigners hours beforehand. That was one of the most disingenuous stunts I have witnessed in my time in politics.

The Tánaiste and the Taoiseach can attempt to spin however they like, but the scheme is not 100%. I would appreciate if they would stop saying it is. It will cost the average homeowner in Donegal over €50,000 to participate in this scheme. The sliding scale has no rational basis. The scheme has to deliver for people. The scheme as outlined on Tuesday will not work. Will the Government commit to omitting the illogical sliding scale from any proposed legislation?

The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is considering this matter at the moment. Deputies Carey and McHugh and others have made a similar case to that being made now by Deputy Pringle in regard to the sliding scale. The whole idea of having a cap per square foot, in terms of cost, is a sensible one so that we can contain costs and make sure the money is spent most efficiently. It is based on an independent index compiled by the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland. If a house is damaged or destroyed by lightening or knocked down for some reason, this is the amount the insurance company will pay out per square foot. It is an objective index. It is updated every year and we would expect it to be increased in the spring in line with construction inflation. The logic behind the sliding scale is one of economies of scale, that is, that a smaller building costs more to build per square foot than a larger building does. People who work in the building trade - I note Deputy Canney is nodding - will know that a smaller building costs more to build per square foot than a larger one because of economies of scale. That is the logic behind it.

At yesterday's meeting of the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party, the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, informed us that more than 90% of people who had initially claimed the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, have now signed off that payment. There was also a great deal of discussion around the reduction in the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, in particular for the hospitality sector. While the Government is no longer in the business of restricting particular activities, it is recommending to people that they reduce their social activities and this is inevitably impacting on those businesses. Is the Tánaiste, with his colleagues in government, considering extending the EWSS, perhaps in a more targeted way, to affect those sectors I have outlined?

I want to acknowledge that even though the Government has not closed any hospitality businesses, hotels, restaurants or bars, nor have we advised against international travel, the reality is that the public health advice has caused people to behave in a certain way, which is the way we have asked them to behave. I hate the word "behave"; perhaps "act" is a better word. That has had a negative impact on the hospitality sector, tourism, aviation and events such as pantomimes. In a large number of areas, people are experiencing very significant cancellations. That is a real worry because, for a lot of those sectors, December and the Christmas period is their harvest time. It is the time they make money that helps them get through the rougher parts of the year. I understand that and we want to help those sectors.

I should point out, however, that the EWSS costs the Irish people €400 million a month. Most of the companies on that scheme are not in the hospitality, aviation or arts and entertainment sectors. Anything we need to do has to be targeted.

Thank you very much, Tánaiste. The time is up.

The EWSS may not be the best way to do it, but we will do something for sure.

On a similar matter, our hotels, restaurants and bars have been heavily impacted by recent changes to public health measures. I am aware of many businesses throughout Mayo that have had their Christmas trading significantly reduced, with high levels of cancellations, following those changes. It is one thing to see a change in public behaviour but the reduction in the EWSS is rubbing salt into the wound. Even extending the full rate of the scheme would be an incredible sign of support for this sector. I acknowledge the work of the Tánaiste and the Minister for Finance on the implementation of the hugely important supports for businesses. I understand any decision in this regarding is pending and will follow a review of the public health restrictions with the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, and NPHET. We seriously need to revisit the temporary extension of the EWSS and look at restoring the full rate or introducing sector-specific supports.

What has happened is that people have heeded the advice they received from the CMO and the Government. They are reducing their social contacts and, as a result, they are cancelling bookings in restaurants and pubs, attendance at events in bars and travel. In many ways, that sector, which has been the worst, hardest and longest hit, is now, once again, taking a hit for the team. That is why we need to support it and it is why we will do so. I point out to the House, however, that the EWSS costs €400 million a month. It is the biggest intervention in the Irish economy since the bank guarantee. It is a much better one, by the way, but a huge one nonetheless. Most companies in receipt of the EWSS are not in the hospitality, entertainment, arts, events or aviation sectors. If we are going to do something, it needs to be targeted.

Thank you, Tánaiste.

We need to make sure there is no dead weight and that is what we are working on at the moment.

The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, confirmed at a committee meeting this morning, in response to questions from my colleague, Deputy Ó Broin, that there will be no more money in the budget for the defective concrete blocks scheme for next year. That budget is €40 million. The Tánaiste knows the urgency of the situation in Donegal, Mayo and other counties, where houses are crumbling down around people. We need to have more money available in the budget for next year. He needs to send a clear signal of the urgency with which the Government is treating this issue and that the scheme will be expeditiously introduced. I totally agree with Deputy Pringle's point earlier that there is no logic to the sliding scale. We need to see the proper amount of money in the budget. We need to get on with the urgent cases, in particular, where houses are falling down right now. Will the Tánaiste give us assurances on that?

I can do so. There is an initial allocation in the budget of €40 million for next year and, if that is needed and spent, then more can be found. We are not going to have a situation whereby we set up a scheme in the first few months of next year, get it up and running in the spring and summer and then tell people in the autumn it is being suspended. That is not going to happen. If we get to the point where the €40 million is spent, at that point additional money can be allocated, and that can be done through a variety of resources from within the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage or a Supplementary Estimate, if that is required. None of the €40 million has yet been spent.

Last week, we got the good news that Squirrel's Scramble Adventure Tree Park in Wicklow is to reopen in the springtime, following a decision it had to take to close due to escalating insurance costs. The company managed to secure insurance cover in a situation where the previous quote was €88,000. However, without Government action, this is only, as I understand it, a stay of execution. While a number of Government Deputies in Wicklow were quick to welcome the announcement, the irony is that the adventure park had to close in the first instance due to Government inaction in tackling the insurance industry. We need to see movement to change the Occupiers' Liability Act, which can be done by way of a simple amendment to ensure the issue of duty of care is managed in a fair and proportionate way.

Thank you, Deputy. The time is up.

I have been given assurances by the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, that the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, is giving priority to this issue.

The time is up, Deputy, please.

Can the Tánaiste give an update as to when priority will be given and when we will see the legislation and changes?

I saw reports on the television news a few months ago about this adventure centre in County Wicklow closing. I had not heard that it has been able to secure insurance and can now reopen. That is really good news and very welcome. Having reopened, we want it stay opened, and having affordable and available insurance is going to be part of that. The first and biggest step in terms of insurance reform is the new personal injury guidelines, which have considerably brought down the awards people are paid when they incur an injury. That will help to bring down costs. The reform of the Occupiers' Liability Act is the next big step, and the Minister for Justice is working on that. We anticipate legislation to rebalance the duty of care in the new year. That is not taking away employers' or businesspeople's responsibility to protect their customers, but it does put a bit more responsibility on individuals to look after themselves and not get injured, which, unfortunately, some people find to be quite easy to do.

Ireland's vaccination campaign has been a great national success. Almost all adults have been vaccinated and we have the highest rate in Europe. Great credit is due to everybody involved, particularly front-line staff in the HSE centres, nurses, GPs and pharmacists. The national immunisation advisory committee's recommendation that every adult should be offered a third dose of vaccine is very welcome. We have seen the impact of boosters in both the UK and Israel. Almost 880,000 people in this country have received a booster, which is very positive news. However, we have seen issues with long queues at some HSE centres, which it is hoped will be resolved very quickly. People with underlying conditions are currently eligible to receive their booster dose from their GP. However, this may not be an option for them as many GPs are not offering boosters to those aged under 70 years. Many people cannot access the HSE walk-in clinics and they report having difficulty making bookings at pharmacies. This is making it very challenging for people with underlying conditions, some of which are quite serious, to access the booster programme. Will the Tánaiste raise this matter with the Minister for Health? How does he see the booster campaign progressing over the coming weeks?

I certainly will raise this matter with the Minister for Health, whom I will see today or tomorrow when we discuss the new advice from NPHET. I really welcome the fact that Deputy Devlin used the term "third dose". I really think we should stop using the term "booster dose". It is increasingly clear that this is a three-course primary vaccination, as is the case with many other vaccines. The use of the word "booster" implies it is in some way discretionary. Getting the third dose does not restore immunity to the level it was at after getting the second dose; it actually brings it to a higher level again. The early indication from Israel and elsewhere is that it is more durable and wanes more slowly. A total of 800,000 people have had their third dose. We expect to get to more than 1 million within the next week or so. I really encourage people to take up the offer of the third dose and see it as the third dose they need to get to protect them against this virus and not as a booster that is discretionary.

I want to add my voice to those of other speakers calling for additional supports for tourism and hospitality businesses. Throughout the country, those businesses are really hurting and struggling because of the situation at the moment. In my constituency, Kerry, even in the traditionally very busy locations like Killarney, Dingle and Tralee, businesses are really struggling since the EWSS was reduced earlier in the week. It needs to be restored. I am calling for a targeted approach for tourism and hospitality businesses to restore support to at least the equivalent of the payment that was previous available under the EWSS. They need it now more than ever before because they really are struggling. They have been through a torrid time and need the support of the Government. They are very grateful for what has been done to date but they need that continued support to weather this storm.

We are very aware of the decimation of the tourism and hospitality sectors due to Covid-19 and the necessary restrictions.

As the Tánaiste has referenced, it is the messaging and not necessarily the restrictions right now that are causing an issue for them. We are awaiting NPHET’s advice to Government and then will give consideration to supports, if needed. I would also like to inform the Deputy that the Tánaiste and I will co-chair a meeting with the tourism, hospitality and live events sector next Monday. It is right, following NPHET’s advice and consideration of supports. We will liaise closely with them.

The programme for Government commits to mandating Irish Water to develop plans to ensure security of supply and sufficient capacity in drinking and wastewater networks to allow for balanced regional development. We know that to unlock development outside of our cities, we need to get the basics right. That means quality broadband, good public realm, sustainable transport and, crucially, good water quality. The Tánaiste knows the Waterford coastline better than most. Residents of Bunmahon, a beautiful coastal town at the centre of the Copper Coast UNESCO Global Geopark have been told that they will have to wait beyond 2024 before even being considered for inclusion in Irish Water’s capital investment plan, even though their wastewater system is creaking at the seams. I could say something similar about Tramore pier, Dungarvan Bay and Waterford Estuary. They all have water quality issues and all need significant investment. Does the budget for Irish Water’s capital investment plan need to be expanded to meet these needs in County Waterford and elsewhere?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. I will certainly take it up with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. We may well need to expand the capital budget of Irish Water so it can get more work done around the country. It has been expanded already. Initial indications suggest that Irish Water will underspend its capital budget by €100 million this year, which is a substantial underspend. Perhaps there are good reasons for that, related to Covid-19 and planning delays. There is a certain difficulty in continuing to increase budgets for agencies that cannot spend their budgets. There may be good reasons for it but we would need to explore that before increasing the budget again.

I would like to raise the issue of services at Carmona School in Glenageary, which services not only my constituency of Dublin-Rathdown, but also the constituencies of Dún Laoghaire, Wicklow and parts of Dublin Bay South. Many families utilise the school but the services are quite simply not being met. Physiotherapy services are not suitable. Services are not on-site five days a week. There has been no speech and language therapy since February 2021. The occupational therapist is only on-site three days a week. Despite repeated promises made by the Taoiseach and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, in this Chamber, the HSE simply has not intervened to bring these services up to the levels that were promised to the school community. I ask the Tánaiste to intervene and to ensure that the HSE keeps its promise.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. I received a briefing about it a week or so ago, but it is probably out of date at this stage. I will certainly talk to Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte about it, as she is the Minister of State with responsibility in this area. I will ask that she takes whatever necessary action is required to maintain and retain these important services for the people of south Dublin.

On 16 October, a fire broke out at the Glashaus building in Tallaght. People were trapped for half an hour on balconies. They were terrified for their lives. Thankfully, there were no casualties, but there could have been. People were waiting for 20 minutes for the aerial platform to arrive from Tara Street. Since then, I have been asking questions about this. What has emerged is that there are three appropriate aerial appliances in Dublin, two of which are in Tara Street and one in Dún Laoghaire. There are high-rise developments in Tallaght and other parts of Dublin and we simply do not have the equipment locally that is necessary to rescue people in the event of fires. It has also emerged that a review is under way, which I welcome. Does the Tánaiste agree that where there are high-rise developments, there should be appropriate equipment to deal with fires?

This could be a Topical Issue matter.

I am not an expert in the field at all, but what the Deputy said is concerning. The pattern of development in Dublin is unusual. It is almost as a low-rise city in the centre and it is increasingly becoming high-rise city around the M50 ring, which runs through the Deputy’s constituency and mine. Logic would suggest that some of the equipment would be in the M50 area to the west of the city. However, I am not an expert on the issue at all and I do not want to speak beyond my knowledge. I will take this up the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, because I imagine this is the kind of thing that could happen in my constituency too.

It is 2 December and Christmas is in full swing. As the Tánaiste will be well aware, Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus and the team of elves are absolutely flat-out in their workshop in Lapland trying to make toys for the children of Ireland and children right across the globe. He will also be aware, in his role as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, that there is an issue with the supply chain in Ireland, the UK, Europe and right across the globe. I want him to reassure the children of Ireland that the supply chain issue will not affect Santa Claus and his team in Lapland and that we can secure a safe supply of goods and raw materials for Santa in his workshop so that he and his team can make toys for the children right across Ireland who have, for the most part, been absolutely excellent this year. I would like the Tánaiste to reassure them that they will have their toys on Christmas morning.

I thank the Deputy for raising that important matter. Has the Tánaiste sent his own letter yet?

What list are you on?

I have not yet sent my letter, a Cheann Comhairle.

On the Deputy’s question, I want to give him an assurance, and an assurance to the families and children of Ireland, that this matter is in hand. Santa, his wife and his staff are fully vaccinated and they will be exempt from any travel restrictions that have to be imposed between now and then. My Department will leave no stone unturned in doing absolutely everything we can to make sure that there is no disruption to supply chains, or any kind of trade rules or issues that could disrupt delivery of presents on Christmas Eve, which is only three weeks away.

There are three Deputies remaining and they have 30 seconds each.

The Taoiseach is running at €600,000 raffle with a licence that is meant for a charity. Is it not cynical and extreme that Fianna Fáil, a party that reaped €3.4 million from the State last year, is now applying specifically under a charities licence to raise funds? A charities licence is for people who are in real need. You could not make this up. I ask the Tánaiste a simple question. Is Fianna Fáil a charity? Is it wrong for Fianna Fáil to use charities legislation to raise funds as a political party?

I want to raise the issue of serious deficiencies in the Passport Office in the processing first-time passports for babies. When my office contacted the Oireachtas urgent queries service to address the issue, we were told that they did not have access to the email sent to the Minister’s passport email address. My question is what is the purpose of the Oireachtas query service, if it does not have access? Why is the target date for a passport application pushed back by 40 days every time a new document is needed to rectify minor issues in the application? That seems to prolong the process.

I have constituents who are young families and single people who have moved to north Kildare and they cannot access a GP. Some of them are young mothers who cannot get vaccinations for their children or babies. Within 5 km of where I live, five GPs have recently retired. I have submitted parliamentary questions on this, but the replies tell me that GPs are a private matter and not the job of the Government. However, in the programme for Government, the Government promised to deliver care in the community and to strengthen general practice. The market seems unable to look after this. I hope the Tánaiste will agree that this is an urgent public health matter. With waiting lists so long and emergency departments so busy, GPs are the Holy Grail at the moment in primary healthcare. What is the Government doing to address this?

On the initial question from Deputy Toibin, charities legislation is not being used. Any organisation can make an application to the District Court under gambling legislation and many do. Lots of sports clubs do so as well.

For a maximum of €10. It is a maximum of €10, but if it is a charity, it goes to €20.

Please, Deputy.

That is the brief answer to it. Charities legislation is not involved.

On Deputy Munster's query, there are ongoing delays at the Passport Office that we are all familiar when it comes to the processing of passports. The Department of Foreign Affairs is taking on additional staff, although there are some issues with people working from home, which is making a little bit more difficult. However, additional staff are being taken on to speed the process up.

We encourage people to use the online service where they can. It seems to be working more quickly than the passport express service. There is a particular issue around new applications for children and babies, and I understand they cannot be expedited for various reasons. That is acknowledged.

On Deputy Cronin's question, there are parts of the country where people are struggling to find a GP because of retirements and other issues. The Government response is twofold. First, we are training more GPs than we have ever done before and second, we are allowing work permits and visas for GPs from other parts of the world who want to work and practice here. We are also giving consideration to introducing salaried GPs. That has not been done yet but it is under consideration. It could perhaps be done in more rural and remote parts of the country where someone would receive a salaried position from the HSE rather than being a sole trader, which is the current model. That model works very well in most of the country but does not always work well everywhere.