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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 7 Dec 2021

Vol. 1015 No. 4

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?

We have had clarification overnight from the Department of Education on the wearing of face masks in schools. Earlier today, the Taoiseach said the Minister for Education would be guided by expert advice. As the Taoiseach knows, the Ombudsman for Children, this day last week, made a strong recommendation that face masks in schools should be reviewed on a fortnightly basis.

Will the Taoiseach give a commitment that this ongoing review will take place and that we will have a debate in the House on what is happening in schools?

Is there anyone else on the Order of Business? No. I call on the Taoiseach to respond.

Are we agreeing the Order of Business?

We are attempting to agree the Order of Business.

That is like a query we take after we agree.

I think we can keep it under review. It is open to us to review anything at any time but the public health advice has given a timeline into mid-February, if I am not mistaken, on the wearing of masks in schools. The Chief Medical Officer will review that advice and communicate to the Government.

The Ombudsman for Children is an expert as well.

I do not deny that. We are in the middle of a pandemic and hopefully the childhood vaccination programme will begin in earnest early in the new year. That will have an impact. We will consult the Chief Medical Officer. I fully take on board the concerns of the Ombudsman for Children. We all have those concerns.

Question, "That the proposed arrangements for this week's business be agreed", put and agreed to.

An important story broke in The Currency magazine today relating to National Broadband Ireland, which could have serious implications for the roll-out of broadband across rural Ireland. In May 2019, I warned the then Taoiseach and current Tánaiste, Deputy Leo Varadkar, that the contract signed by the Government to deliver the national broadband plan was a bad deal for the taxpayer. I raised a concern that the contract would see the taxpayer shell out over €3 billion up front to roll out the broadband network and, at the end of the day, the State would not own the infrastructure. I also raised the concern that the bidder had very little skin in the game and could walk away at any time.

It now transpires that the Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Mr. Robert Watt, shared my concerns. In a memo to the Government he described the contract as a "leap of faith" with "unprecedented risk" to the Exchequer in an asset we will not even own. Today's article raises serious questions about this deal. Will the Taoiseach confirm that Oak Hill Advisors are the ultimate majority shareholder of National Broadband Ireland? This is crucial because Oak Hill Advisors is a US firm specialising not in long-term infrastructure investment but as a vulture fund investing in distressed debt. Will the Taoiseach confirm how much this consortium has contributed and how much it has already recouped from this deal?

The Deputy will recall that at the time the contracts were signed I was standing where she now stands. We had a robust debate around broadband more generally. The memo she referenced was published at the time in The Irish Times, if I am not mistaken, and that generated a lot of debate in this House. I may have asked questions about it at the time, so intrigued was I by that memo.

The Taoiseach might answer the question.

I am just pointing out that what the Deputy is revealing is not new. In terms of the memo and so on, these are not new developments. In terms of broadband, the contract is signed and the Government's focus is on rolling out broadband and getting it as widely distributed across the country as we can.

What about Oak Hill Advisors? That was my question. Will the Taoiseach confirm-----

That is a matter for parliamentary questions.

The Taoiseach does not know.

Four out of ten first-time buyers needed family help to buy their homes in the first six months of this year, amounting to an estimated €210 million, and the typical first-time buyer needs a deposit of at least €52,000. My Labour Party colleague in Dún Laoghaire, Councillor Denis O'Callaghan, has been working on a co-operative housing proposal for ten years to deliver 42 homes on Loughlinstown Drive. It was to be delivered by Co-operative Housing Ireland, CHI, which had 34 social housing apartments. It also included eight three-bedroom homes that families in the Loughlinstown housing co-operative would receive. This important initiative has been going on for a long time. The land was disposed of by the council to CHI and the Loughlinstown group in 2018 but the developer pulled out last week.

The planning permission will lapse next spring and not alone will we lose 34 social houses, but eight families who have scraped and saved will lose their homes. I ask the Taoiseach to ask the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to intervene in this matter because we are very short on time.

It is very regrettable if the developer pulled out. I do not know the background to the case. I commend anybody involved on providing housing of this type in a co-operative context. I will engage with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and ask him to talk to the Deputy.

I think it can be saved.

I will ask the Minister to assess this and to see what we can do to help. I would make the point that I do take on board very seriously the report today. Mortgage lending is very robust at the moment and commencements, which are mentioned in that report, have increased very significantly. We are looking at approximately 31,000 commencements from October to October. While it is extraordinarily challenging, the help-to-buy scheme and the shared equity scheme and others will help first-time buyers. This is the highest number of commencements in a decade in any one 12 month period. There are signs of hope.

Covid in children is at an all time high. I want to revisit the conversation we had previously with regard to HEPA filters. The Taoiseach mentioned previously that a budget for HEPA filters would be coming on stream in the next couple of weeks. Is that budget the annual minor works grant scheme? If that is the budget to which the Taoiseach refers, are we facing a scenario where schools will be in the invidious situation of having to choose between fixing a broken window or toilet and the installation of a much-needed HEPA filter? Would it not be much better if we had a standalone budget for primary schools that is specifically for HEPA filters? We cannot have a scenario where schools will have to choose between minor works and a mitigation that will, to some degree, make children safer.

To be fair, we have been generous enough in the past two years in terms of both the scale of the minor works grant scheme and the timing of it. It is not a question of schools having to choose between a broken window and a HEPA filter.

Every school is different. There are technical teams available to talk to schools in respect of what will work best for them. There is emergency works funding as well. We have already delivered 35,500 CO2 monitors to 4,000 schools across the country. They are an important aspect following the advice the Minister received. The advice also is that HEPA filters may be appropriate in certain circumstances. As I said earlier, the cost of a HEPA filter is approximately €1,800. Within the range of resources provided to schools that is not beyond some of them.

The Taoiseach just confirmed that this is not extra money and that it is a matter of choosing between toilets and HEPA filters. That is an absolutely scandalous position that he has been trying to avoid spelling out all afternoon. I have been listening to him.

In any case, I want to ask a question about the sneaky fine print with regard to the announcement made by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, which brings in a new rock bottom pandemic unemployment payment, PUP rate of €150 per week, which is less than the dole and far below the poverty line. It is a lump of coal in the stockings of those hospitality and entertainment workers who have lost their jobs due to the new restrictions. The PUP should be properly restored at €350 per week for all. The question now is if those who lost their jobs in the past weeks due to the restrictions and had to sign on to regular unemployment allowance as the PUP was closed will be allowed to switch to the PUP and get the higher rates or, as seems to be implied by the Minister's press statement, are they stuck on the lower rates because they were let go a few days too soon?

The Deputy has consistently sought throughout the pandemic to paint a dismal picture of employment in this country and that the Government is somehow negligent. He needs to acknowledge that our economy is the fastest recovering economy in the European Union. We had the fastest jobs growth in quarter 3 of any EU member state. I never hear the Deputy say that in this House, because he cannot.

What does the Taoiseach expect me to say?

I expect you to acknowledge the fact that hundreds of thousands of people have gone back to work in the past number of months because of sound economic policies.

Through the PUP, EWSS and other initiatives, we kept businesses and employment intact, but all I get from the Deputy every day is one tale of misery after the other. One would imagine there were thousands of people out of work all of the time.

There are thousands of people out of work.

The bottom line is this: the Minister has reintroduced PUP for those who are going to lose work as a result of the measures we introduced last week.

Thank you, Taoiseach. The time is up.

What if they lost their jobs two weeks ago?

There are more vacancies now in our economy than there were in 2019, pre-pandemic. Maybe the Deputy should absorb that.

Thank you very much. I call Deputy Shanahan.

I note the Comptroller and Auditor General's recent report on the accounts of the public services shows, once again, a worryingly high success rate for social welfare appeals. From approximately 26,000 appeals, some 14,000, or just over 50%, appear to have led to a revised decision. This raises important questions about the fairness, transparency and efficiency of social welfare decision-making. If that decision-making were robust and dependable, one would expect few decisions to be overturned. How many people do not raise an appeal when they should? As the Taoiseach and I both know, as does every other Deputy, past and present, denying a payment can have a huge impact on our most vulnerable people and their dependants. Can there be an improvement in standards of work in the Department of Social Protection?

The turnaround time for appeals in the Department has improved over the most recent period. I have brought to Cabinet a request, as reflected in the social protection legislation I am bringing through at the moment, to allow for the appointment of two more registered officers for appeals purposes. That should help to improve any delays. In fairness, the turnaround time has improved considerably over the past number of months.

Can the Taoiseach explain to every household in Ireland why, in the middle of a pandemic and a national fuel crisis, the Government has raised taxes on fuel and is now getting €1 per litre? Why were taxes on fuel not capped in order that, if there were a fuel increase, people would only be paying for the increase and not any extra tax? We are paying an extra 19 cent per litre in tax in the past 12 months, which means every household in Ireland is paying €10.75 in tax out of every €100 of fuel. The farmers and people in the truck industry are on their knees. This week, they are all going out to protest because of the Government's failure to protect the people of Ireland. Every member of the Government should resign his or her position. Every one of the Government backbenchers and Ministers backed this extra tax we are paying. Since 2020, the State is getting an extra 19 cent per litre.

Thank you, Deputy. The time is up.

The Government needs to cap the tax and get rid of the percentage it is charging.

The time is up, Deputy, please.

The tax must be capped. We will pay a fuel increase but we will not pay a tax on the fuel increase.

Deputy, restrain yourself, please. The Taoiseach to reply.

First, we represent all the people and we have to raise revenue generally to provide for education, our health services and social protection. That is why tax exists. I accept that, because of global developments principally, fuel prices have gone up very high. That is why we brought in and increased the fuel allowance.

The tax was also increased.

I did not interrupt the Deputy.

Will you stop shouting, Deputy O'Donoghue?

Hold it one second, Deputy. I have also said in this House that the Government is looking at measures to help householders further to reduce their household bills in respect of electricity bills that are a consequence of increased energy costs.

How are they going to get to work to pay it?

That is something the Government is actively considering.

In June this year, the Data Protection Commission wrote to the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth in regard to his Department's handling of subject access requests, SARs, from survivors of mother and baby homes. The commission told the Minister: "Concerning SI 82/1989, I have had reason to re-examine the Department's approach to SARs pertaining to health data and I am of the view that the manner in which the Department is handling such requests is not appropriate to the circumstances." In September, the Minister, in response to the Adoption (Information) Bill brought forward by Deputy Connolly and me, told us we would have this Bill before the House by Christmas. In November, the European Commission opened an investigation into the general data protection regulation, GDPR, matter and the Department told the Commission that it is anticipated that the new regulations will be in place by the end of the year.

We have seen nothing yet, despite it being prioritised by the Chief Whip's legislative programme for the term. When will the Government get this done? Will the Taoiseach ensure that the proposed section 10(2), which seeks to limit and continue the same unlawful block on direct access, is removed? Most importantly, in the meantime, will the Taoiseach ensure that the Department desists from its unlawful application of SI 82/1989?

First, on the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2021, it is not the Government's fault. We published it as far back as last May. It has been in pre-legislative scrutiny in this House since. I think it is out now and that we are in a position to get the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth-----

Are you going to bring it forward?

We have just got it. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O’Gorman, being proactive as he is, has been working in parallel with the committee, monitoring the changes that were going to be made. The intention is to bring the Bill forward as quickly as possible. It is not the Government's fault that it has been delayed. On the regulations and so on, again we are conscious and mindful of the need to act sensitively, appropriately and in a timely manner when responding to subject access requests.

Recent corporation tax receipts have demonstrated that the Irish economy is rebounding strongly from the shocks of Covid-19 and indeed Brexit, as the Taoiseach alluded to in an earlier response. However, it is a two-track recovery, with businesses in the technology, pharma and financial services doing extremely well, while many businesses in the hospitality, entertainment and event sectors are struggling. The Government's commitment to these sectors and their employees is appreciated. However, the latest round of restrictions is having a significant impact on these businesses. Can the Taoiseach provide an update on recent engagements with these sectors and an indication of when targeted supports will be introduced?

First, the economy is recovering faster overall than any other in the European Union. One just has to look at the tax receipts which were, for the first 11 months of this year, over €62 billion. That is more than €5.3 billion ahead of target. The budget deficit this year is said to be much smaller than forecast, one of the smallest in European Union. This is basically good policy at work. It is interesting that there are 30,800 job vacancies now in the third quarter, compared to 17,900 in the same time period two years ago. Many job vacancies are out there at the moment. In respect of the sectors of the economy that have been worst affected as a result of restrictions I, along with the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Varadkar, the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, and the Minister for Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, met with approximately 30 or 40 representatives of the hospitality sector and the live entertainment, music and theatre groups. We are going to go back to them with bespoke models to assist them to keep theatres open, to keep artists performing and to support the ongoing work in hospitality.

I want to follow up with the Taoiseach’s reference to his meeting with the hospitality sector yesterday, along with his ministerial colleagues. It is a huge sector for employment. It is very much about maintaining that link with their employees. We have a large hospitality sector in Limerick and in the midwest. I want to follow up with the Taoiseach on his discussions yesterday. When does he expect those to be concluded? When does he expect that the scheme will be announced, particularly considering the CRSS and the link with the employees? When will these businesses see money in their bank accounts in terms of State support so that we can keep that link with employees and so they can come through this latest difficulty with Covid-19 restrictions?

To be fair, the Government has not been found wanting in supporting sectors in the economy since the beginning of the pandemic. Now, in this fourth wave of the pandemic, given the overall fact that there is a lot of activity in the economy, we have to tailor-make our responses into the future. Economy-wide measures in themselves could end up supporting sectors that do not necessarily need supports. This is an evolving situation. The Minister of Finance, Deputy Donohoe, has devised amendments and adjustments to the CRSS programme, designed for the current situation. He is refining and fine tuning those. Likewise, the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, is working on the entertainment side, with the theatre and arts groups, keeping venues open, and trying to keep performers performing, whilst making them viable in doing so. That is challenging because it is a very diverse group. That is the kind of work that is under way at the moment.

In the next number of days.

Page 45 of the programme for Government commits to ensuring capacity, particularly bed and critical care capacity.

In the context of the major hospital in my constituency of Limerick, namely, University Hospital Limerick, UHL, this commitment seems not to have been implemented. We always have the highest number of people on trolleys. Some 82 people were on trolleys in the hospital yesterday and, unfortunately, 83 people are on trolleys this morning. This is scandalous. People are not statistics. They need to be treated properly. The staff are under huge pressure and have been working really hard. On Friday, UHL management advised mid-west Oireachtas Members that the new 96-bed unit is not expected to be ready before July 2023 at the earliest. When is the Taoiseach going to intervene in respect of this matter? He must be aware at this stage of the capacity and staffing issues at UHL, but there seems to be no action from him. What is his plan to alleviate capacity pressures at UHL in the here and now? What can he do to expedite the construction of the badly needed new 96-bed unit?

Again, substantial resources have been provided by the HSE, in the context of the winter plan in particular, to facilitate the development of a number of initiatives to clear and have a better flow through hospitals, including UHL. That also includes GP liaison nurses to manage direct referrals from GPs to emergency departments, geriatric community support, enhancement and expansion of frailty intervention therapy team models and so forth. By the end of the year we will have close to 950 additional beds in the system and anything that can be accelerated will be accelerated. There are working groups and one has to go through procurement processes and all the various-----

They have not even gotten a commitment.

-----aspects in respect of capacity.

I understand that a memorandum was brought to Cabinet this morning regarding major reforms in the funding of childcare. There will be significant moves towards improving the pay and conditions of staff, building on the universal core funding that has been in existence for some years now, targeted funding for disadvantaged areas and significantly expanding the State's involvement in this sector. Does the Taoiseach agree that the proposal approved by Cabinet this morning should pave the way for the ending of price hikes within the childcare sector, particularly when it comes to parents who are trying to hold down careers?

To be fair, two significant memorandums were decided on this morning in respect of childcare. These were brought to Cabinet by the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and they relate to workforce development and funding models for childcare into the future. Substantial funding was provided in the last budget for the development of workforce pay and conditions. That now has to go to a joint labour committee, which will arrive at an agreed figure in respect of childcare workers. The policy platforms that have gone through Cabinet today are essential building blocks to develop a high-quality childcare system that puts the child at the centre, because it is about the child at the end of the day. Parallel to that, we have to design a system and a framework that makes it affordable for parents.

I also wish to raise the issue of the hospitality sector. There is huge recognition in the sector of the significant support this Government has given it throughout this unprecedented crisis. Some employers were in contact with me this morning who are worried about how the new PUP will affect employees if they have to restrict their hours. A number of requests have been made to me by hoteliers and people in the hospitality sector. They are asking for the restoration of the EWSS employment supports for hospitality businesses to November levels. On the EWSS qualification criteria, they ask that hospitality businesses which may become ineligible in December be given the opportunity to requalify for EWSS supports in January. The other point relates to Covid restrictions support scheme business supports and automatic qualification for those supports if hospitality businesses qualify for the EWSS.

I thank the Deputy for the detailed points he made in the context of supports for those in the hospitality sector. The Minister for Finance is still refining and going through those particular issues. We want to make sure that, whatever we do as a Government, we adequately support and provide supports to the hospitality sector, given the decisions that have been taken.

Nightclubs are closing as a result of the measures brought in on foot of public health advice - the closing time is back to midnight - and there has been a fall-off in corporate bookings for restaurants and so forth. It is a different type of phase that we are in now. Therefore, it needs a different type of response. We are working on that to make sure that the gap is basically narrowed and that businesses can continue on with good viability and retain staff.

In recent years, we have delivered significant improvements in our country's approach to women's healthcare. The repeal of the eighth amendment was a landmark decision and the recent budget announcement to provide free contraception to young women was welcome, but women's healthcare goes far beyond contraception and family planning. Menopause can be a challenging time for women physically, mentally and, according to studies, professionally. In 2019, the women's health task force recommended that we needed to improve supports for menopause. Many women find that hormone replacement therapy, HRT, is a lifeline throughout menopause but that the cost can be a barrier to access. Last week, a constituent of mine sent me a copy of her bill for €62.33 for a month's supply of HRT with the comment, "It really still is a man's world". What is the Government doing to improve menopause supports for women and does the Taoiseach have an update on the commitment by the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to establish dedicated specialist menopause clinics across Ireland?

First of all, I thank the Deputy for raising what is a very important issue. To be fair, the Minister for Health has really led on this front in terms of the programme and the priority he gave it in his budget submission to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. He received funding to create this year four specialist menopause clinics. The first of those four menopause clinics has opened. The intention is to do all four this year.

We are more than halfway through the national maternity strategy and we have made no progress on the acquisition of a site for the national maternity hospital, which was recommended as far back as 2008 in the KPMG report. Will the Taoiseach confirm whether, after all the delays, we are almost there in terms of implementing the national maternity strategy and purchasing a site so that we can have a State-run public national maternity hospital on a State-owned site?

My view of the entire debate in this regard is that the absolute imperative is that we get a national maternity hospital built that is fit for purpose for the women who need to avail of modern, first-class and world-class facilities. There has been too much delay for years before this Government was formed because of different disputes, arguments and debates between different entities and hospitals.

Will the Taoiseach answer the question?

I will answer the question. That is the bottom line.

I know all of that. I have read-----

If the Deputy does know,-----

What about my question?

The question is in the context of the debate that the Deputy has been a participant in and many here have been participants in. It is the bid to try to arrive at a consensus and a conclusion that has delayed this.

What does that mean? That is devoid of meaning.

I am sorry, but I missed the answer completely.

I do not have a timeline yet.

On page 79 of the programme for Government there is a promise to fast-track "the return to Disability or Invalidity Pension for people where employment opportunities do not succeed." I have spoken to many people over the past two years who are on long-term sickness payments. They would love to give work a try but the risk of putting themselves in severe financial difficulty is too great. There are some who live with illnesses and who experience flare-ups. What progress is being made on this promise and can those who are intermittently unable to work due to flare-ups be included in any solution?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. In the recent budget, I made some changes in respect of those on disability payments in order that they can earn more without it affecting their payments. I will have to take the particular issue the Deputy raised away with me and I will revert to her.

We are out of time, but we can give 30 seconds to Deputies Bríd Smith and Tóibín.

It is almost impossible to do it in 30 seconds. I have seen many Deputies get a lot-----

We will not do it then if the Deputy does not want to.

I do. I will make an attempt at it.

On 13 January in an attempt to apologise to the victims and survivors of mother and baby homes, the Taoiseach stated that children born outside marriage were treated as outcasts. Some 40% of the survivors now feel that they are being treated like outcasts because they are excluded from the redress scheme. A motion that was passed in the Dáil on 23 November and that the Government did not oppose called on the Government to engage immediately with the victims and survivors who were directly affected by this and to review urgently the time-based criteria, the exclusion of children boarded out and the proposed payment rates. What does the Taoiseach intend to do or are the mother and baby home survivors - the outcasts - going to have to go out on the streets again to push this issue forward?

Today, we in Aontú launched a Bill seeking a commission of investigation into the management of nursing homes during the Covid crisis. The majority of people in the State who have died during the pandemic caught Covid in a hospital or a nursing home. Indeed, more than 2,000 people died after contracting Covid in a nursing home. Many of their families are deeply distressed and want to know the truth of what happened to them. Nursing homes were kept open to visitors longer than nursing homes wanted. There was a surge of 10,000 patients from hospitals into nursing homes in the first half of 2020 and many of them were not tested. Will the Government support the Aontú Bill for a commission of investigation into nursing homes?

Very quickly, I do not accept the term "outcasts" in any shape or form. I think the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, has-----

That is the Taoiseach's term.

No, I mean in terms of the current payment scheme, which is the context in which I think the Deputy described it. I am speaking in terms of the payment scheme that the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, has announced. In fairness, he deliberated with many groups in respect of this. It is not just the payment scheme. The information and tracing Bill is essential and a whole range of measures, including the action plan, were entered into following the apology. They are all being progressed in a timely and very effective manner by the Government and we intend to proceed and continue with engaging with groups in relation to this.

Some 40% are excluded.

On Deputy Tóibín's question.

I am not of the view right now that a commission of investigation is the best model to evaluate how this country did in respect of Covid-19.

In the nursing homes.

What I am intrigued by is that, even before we establish it, Aontú has clearly set its own terms of reference regarding to whom it is going to apportion blame, which is characteristic of a lot of approaches in the House.

No. Terms of reference are needed for an investigation.

The absence of any objectivity-----

All investigations have terms of reference.

-----in advance of an investigation is quite striking.

We cannot have an investigation without terms of reference.