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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 20 Jan 2022

Vol. 1016 No. 5

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Iarraim ar gach duine na srianta ama a chomhlíonadh.

Cé go gcuirfidh siad siúd atá i dteideal an bónas €1,000 fáilte roimhe, níl go leor soiléiriú ann faoi cé go díreach atá i dteideal an bónas seo a fháil. Mar shampla, caidé faoi na glantóirí sna hospidéil agus iad sin nach bhfuil fostaithe go díreach ag Feidhmeannacht na Seirbhíse Sláinte? An dtig leis an Tánaiste soiléiriú a thabhairt faoi sin?

An grúpa ba mhó gur mhaith liom ardú ar maidin ná na cúramóirí baile. Le dhá bhliain anuas d’oibrigh siad go dian dícheallach gan stad agus níl na cúramóirí seo in ann leas ar bith a bhaint as saoire phoiblí eile. Bíonn a gcuid oibre ar siúl 24 uair sa lá, seacht lá na seachtaine. Caithfear aitheantas a thabhairt dóibh agus an bónas €1,000 a chur ar fáil dóibh.

Yesterday, the Government announced that some healthcare workers would receive a €1,000 bonus payment for their work during the Covid-19 pandemic. I am sure that this is welcome news for many of those who will receive it. However, there remains a high level of ambiguity about who exactly will receive the payment. The Government has not been clear about this over the past 24 hours. I would appreciate some clarity as to how who will be able to receive the payment will be determined and when they will receive it. For example, what about the cleaners in hospitals and other agency staff who are not directly employed by the HSE? Will they be entitled to this €1,000 bonus?

The group of people who feel most let down by this omission so far are family carers. As the Tánaiste knows, family carers provide care that is very specialised, intense and intimate. They of course deserve recognition from everyone in this House, but they deserve more than just a pat on the back or soft words. Over the course of the past two years, carers have seen their respite as well as access to day centres for those whom they care for curtailed. This has increased what was already a significant workload for family carers. As a consequence of this, the State has saved money but the care they provide already saves the State hundreds of millions of euro every year. There is no use in telling carers that they will get an extra public holiday instead because family carers do not get the benefit of public holidays. Theirs is a 24-7 role. Indeed, family carers have said that it will probably put more pressure on them because day services and schools will close that day, meaning that family carers and full-time carers will have no supports that day. Their extraordinary efforts during the pandemic must be recognised. Will the Government do the right thing and move to ensure that those in receipt of the carer's support grant also qualify for the €1,000 bonus payment? It is the least they deserve.

This morning, the Taoiseach announced on "Morning Ireland" that a panel will be established to examine the categories of worker to be included in the Covid-19 bonus payment. This raises a number of questions that the Tánaiste might be able to answer. Who will appoint the panel or has it already been appointed? Have its terms of reference been agreed by the Cabinet and what are they? Who will the panel report to and when will we see a report? When will people know whether they are in or out? While yesterday's announcement was welcome, it is clear that the preparation has not been done, with many workers still not knowing whether they will receive this bonus payment. That is not fair. We understand that they will now be waiting on the work of this panel. There was no talk of a panel yesterday but it has now emerged that there will be one. This bonus payment was first promised by the Taoiseach in July, and the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform stated that it would be agreed and announced well in advance of Christmas, yet that did not happen. The Tánaiste is on the record of the House as saying that a bonus payment should not be limited to healthcare workers only. I am asking for clarity on these issues.

The Deputy is welcome back.

It is important to state that there are three elements to what the Government announced yesterday. The day of remembrance and recognition will recognise the 9,000 people who have died from Covid on this island and all workers, all volunteers and the general public for the efforts they made to help us bring this pandemic under control. That is the first element. There will be a four-day weekend, running from 17 to 20 March, with a State ceremony and service most likely on Sunday, 20 March.

There will be a new public holiday from which all workers in the public and private sectors will benefit. It will be an extra day off for which workers will be fully paid. People who have to work or choose to work on that day will get a day off in lieu or double pay. I appreciate that those who are not in employment or who are self-employed will not but we tried to cover as many people as we could.

The tax-free recognition payment of €1,000 will be paid to more than 100,000 front-line healthcare workers. It is difficult to know where to draw the line with these things. We gave it a great deal of thought and had some consultation and we decided that those who would receive this additional payment were those who worked in clinical settings, wore masks and gowns every day, were employees of the State and were exposed to Covid patients every day. I do not mean just at risk of being exposed to someone who might have Covid, but those who definitely were exposed to people who had Covid, were in clinical settings and did all of that at a time when there were no vaccines. Those are the criteria that we have applied. They cover more than 100,000 people. Agency workers are included if their agencies were contracted to the HSE. An agency nurse, agency cleaner or agency paramedic working side by side with regular HSE employees is included in this payment. I am happy to give that clarification. However, where someone worked for a private company, for example, a private hospital, GP practice, pharmacy or private swab centre, he or she is not covered. There were substantial fees paid to those businesses and companies for the work they did during the pandemic. Many have already paid a bonus to their staff and can do so if they choose to. Up to €500 of the €1,000 can be paid without any taxation.

There will be further information today. It will relate to the criteria for those who are covered by the payment and those who are not. I can confirm that agency workers in public hospitals who were contracted or seconded to the HSE, if that makes sense, or a public body will be covered.

We do not have the membership or terms of reference of the panel finalised yet but that will be done in the near future.

When will the payment be made? It is our objective to pay it in February or March. There is an issue with legislation. This will require primary legislation to amend the Finance Act and the Social Welfare Consolidation Act. The latter need to be amended in order that we can make the payment exempt from income tax, USC and PRSI. That can be done quite quickly, and that is the objective in order that we can make these payments to people in their regular payroll payments in February or March.

While I reckon there are three points to this, three different steps that were agreed, I am focused on the €1,000 bonus payment. This morning the Taoiseach stated that a panel will be established. When he was questioned directly about categories such as carers, he said they are not ruled out. The Tánaiste has given an answer here today that the payment will only be made to those working in clinical settings. Is there a possibility that carers will be included when it comes to the €1,000 bonus payment?

What is the role of the panel? What will its terms of reference be? What job has it to do? Is it to look beyond clinical settings? Is it to look at people such as carers or not? When speaking about the public holiday, the Tánaiste indicated that people will get a day off or, if they are working, get double payment. Carers will get none of that. Indeed, this will increase the pressure on carers. The latter were predominantly caring for those who were at highest risk during the pandemic, many of whom were immunocompromised. They will not get a day off or a double payment. This will increase the pressure on them because day services and schools will be closed, meaning that other supports that they would rely on normally will not be there. The Tánaiste has made the point previously that other jurisdictions limited their bonus payments to healthcare workers. I am of the view that carers are front-line healthcare workers. Does the Tánaiste believe that carers who have provided that valuable work for the State and looked after their loved ones during the height of the pandemic should be included in the bonus payment?

The Government decision yesterday was that this will apply only to employees of the State, but that includes agency workers working for the State. There are different types of carers, as the Deputy knows. There are HSE carers, carers who work for agencies, family carers who are in receipt of carer's allowance and carer's benefit and family carers who are not in receipt of those benefits. Home carers employed by the HSE go around to lots of houses. They may have been exposed to dozens or hundreds of people through the course of their work. Family carers almost always provide care in their own home or perhaps in the household of a close relative, so I think there is a difference there. They do, however, deserve recognition. The main thing we want to do this year for family carers is to change the rules in order that they can avail of the State contributory pension. Generally, people in receipt of the carer's allowance are unable to get regular employment because of their caring responsibilities and they miss out on the State contributory pension as a result. We want to change that this year, and the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, has been tasked to do that. That is the way we can recognise family carers and would in fact be much more valuable in financial terms, if you work it out, than a €1,000 payment.

We know we are in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis. We know that inflation has surged by 5.5% and stands at a 21-year high. Families are struggling with basic necessities. It is getting more difficult for a very large number of people to put food on the table and at the same time heat their homes. An increasing number of households can no longer afford to do both. Every facet of daily life has been impacted. There have been huge increases in food, transport and energy costs. We know that accommodation is a big one, as is insurance. Energy bills are expected to soar by an unprecedented €1,300 this year.

The Tánaiste was asked about this at the weekend. He cited a number of things the Government is doing, including changes to the budget and the forthcoming €100 credit, as making a meaningful difference to people. It is frankly a bit insulting for the Tánaiste to pat himself on the back in the context of the core social welfare rates and pensions, which were increased by €5. The Government was warned before the budget that the pension had fallen in purchasing power by €10.24 since 2019, which is the last time there was an increase. Given the surge in inflation in recent months, its real value has been eroded further. The €100 credit for energy bills that the Tánaiste claims will be introduced as a matter of urgency is not likely to come for a number of months. In the context of those working families trying to keep their heads above water, the Government tinkered around the edges with taxation measures and cuts. We can see that, for example, a single person on a low to middle income of between €25,000 and €35,000 will receive €2 a week, whereas somebody on €100,000 will receive something like four times that amount. Meanwhile, the minimum wage has increased by 30 cent, which is just about 3%, and that, obviously, has been decimated by inflation. If we add in sky-high housing costs, with rents at record highs and a 14% increase in housing prices, the scale of the crisis becomes evident.

Does the Tánaiste think the Government has done enough to insulate people from the cost-of-living crisis? Will the Government introduce further targeted supports for those who are struggling to make ends meet?

I acknowledge that the cost of living is rising very fast. We had a prolonged period across the world of very low inflation. That is now over; we now see inflation at about 5% in Ireland, Britain and other parts of the world. We have not seen that in a very long time. The rising cost of living is causing a real squeeze on family budgets and has resulted in rising costs for business. Most of the factors driving this are outside the control of the Government, at least. They are largely driven by increases in energy costs and international oil and gas prices and disruption to supply chains as a consequence of Covid. It is estimated that inflation will moderate throughout the course of this year, but that does not take away from the fact that the impact of rising prices is having a really severe effect on family budgets and is squeezing many families in this State.

As to what the Government can do, it is multifold. The Deputy mentioned increases in pay. An increase in the minimum wage has just kicked in. There are increases in pay for public servants. Across the private sector, substantial pay increases are now being awarded to workers, and these are necessary to compensate people for inflation. There is the reduction in income tax, which kicks in this month. I will come back to that in a moment on foot of the Deputy's unusual comments in that regard. There are the increases in welfare payments and pensions, which also kick in this month, the 2% cap on rents, the freeze on childcare fees and the €100 grant for energy costs. Are we looking at other things we can do to help? Yes, absolutely.

I accept that some of this is generated from outside the State, particularly in respect of energy. Let us look at how Ireland was doing before this inflationary pressure kicked in. The cost of living in Ireland was 36% above the EU average. Our cost of housing is the highest in Europe. The cost of goods and services in Ireland is the second highest in Europe. Our fuel costs are the fourth highest. We are therefore not on a par with other countries in how this is having an impact. When inflation is added in, what is happening is putting people, especially those who were struggling anyway, into a very precarious position where they are actually choosing between heating their homes and putting food on the table. The change to the minimum wage has been more than eaten up by inflation. We are not on a par with other countries, and that needs to be looked at specifically.

The Deputy is absolutely correct in saying the cost of living in Ireland is higher than the EU average. It is important also to point out that average salaries and wages in Ireland are much higher than the EU average. Both have to be taken into account when considering such matters. There are two areas in respect of which Ireland is a particular outlier, namely, the cost of childcare and of out-of-pocket healthcare expenses. As I indicated on Sunday, that is an issue on which I will focus in the next year or two.

I wish to take the Deputy up on what she said about income tax. She said the Government tinkered at the edges in the context of what we did to reduce income tax for working people.

The Deputy's party opposed that. It was against income tax cuts. Income tax cuts happened because of this Government. What is that going to be worth for the average person earning around €40,000 a year or a couple, both earning in and around that, over the course of three years? We intend to do it over three years by widening the tax bands and increasing the credits. That average couple, who both earn around €40,000, will have €2,400 more in their pockets each year than they would under the Social Democrats, Labour or Sinn Féin. I really want people to know that. The Deputy cannot complain about the cost of living and then say that middle-class and working people should pay more income tax. They would under the Social Democrats.

It should be progressive rather than regressive.

We are out of time. I call Deputy Carol Nolan of the Rural Independent Group.

For the last few months, the vast majority of children at primary and post-primary level in this State have had to endure the sheer misery of being taught in classrooms and school buildings that are freezing cold. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that thousands of very young children, especially those being taught in prefabs which were never warm to start with, are numb with the cold during the school day. I have had parents tell me that their children are returning home from school with headaches or muscle pain from the constant clenching of teeth or shivering. This is a ludicrous, absurd and unacceptable situation. How on earth can we expect children to learn in an environment where they are distracted by the cold, unable to concentrate, with the constant rush of freezing air from the wide open windows, particularly in the last week? How can we expect our teachers to work in those conditions? We, here today as Deputies, are not working those conditions, so why do we expect others to work in those unbearable conditions? According to the Department of Education's guidance, issued in May 2021: "The over-arching approach for schools should be to have windows open as fully as possible when classrooms are not in use (e.g. during break-times or lunch-times and also at the end of each school day) and partially open when classrooms are in use." That is all very well in the warmer months, but at this time of year it borders on negligence to expect pupils as young as five years of age to begin their formative years of education in conditions more suited to a penguin than a child.

There are also the added complications that come with having windows constantly open for children who are hard of hearing or deaf. The level of background noise in a classroom is increased significantly and only adds to the challenges they face from having visual access to faces and lips obscured by the use of masks. Many schools are not fortunate enough to have indoor PE facilities. This means that children are being taken from freezing cold classrooms to the cold outdoors to warm up, then being brought back again to a freezing classroom. We know that some schools are actively sending children home because of the inability to maintain the appropriate balance between ventilation and heating. The teaching union's advice is that members are instructed not to work in rooms where the minimum temperature level of 17.2°C is not achieved. However, many teachers are deeply conflicted and are simply trying to manage a difficult situation as effectively as they can without closing the classroom or indeed, the school. I commend them for all of their efforts that mean they have kept the schools going, but this situation cannot go on. It is intolerable and inappropriate. We need cop-on and common sense.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. It has been mentioned to me on a number of occasions. It is a case of getting the balance right between ventilation and temperature control. No child should be in a classroom and having to wear an anorak and gloves because it is so cold. I know that some children do have to experience that, often because of prefabs and inadequate buildings, even though we have replaced many prefabs in recent years. Things can be taken to an extreme. If a classroom is so cold, because all the windows are open, that a child has to wear gloves and a coat, that is probably passing the point of reasonable balance. I know that it is difficult for teachers and school managers to make that judgment. We are asking them to make that judgment and to be sensible in getting that balance right. Clean air is really important as we live with Covid. As we prepare for the possibility of future pandemics and do more to keep viruses under control, it is going to become more important in terms of what we do with our buildings and public buildings, in particular. That does involve ventilation and air filtration. That is why grants are being provided to schools which can be used towards the purchase of air filters. Increasingly, when it comes to new buildings, it will be about the use of UV light in ventilation systems to kill all viruses, not just the Covid virus. It is something we will talk and hear a lot more about in the years to come.

There are grants available to schools to help with this issue. I appreciate that it can only go so far and that work can only be done so quickly. There is a sensible balance between air filtration, clean air and comfortable and tolerable temperatures in any classroom or workplace. It is important that we get that right. One thing that can be done, for example, is to air a room. My granny used to tell me how important it was to air a room. That does not necessarily mean that you have to leave the windows open for eight hours. It is important to try to get that balance right.

I think the real problem lies with the Department guidelines. The guidelines state that the windows have to be "partially open" during class time. Unfortunately, many of our schools buildings are very old and indeed, are prefabs. That is where the problems lies. The majority of principals and teachers are adhering exactly to what they are being told by the Department. Even when they are adhering to those exact guidelines, there is still an issue. Does the Tánaiste accept that the Department's guidelines now need to be urgently updated, given that we are expecting to return to a greater degree of normality, which is most welcome? I appreciate the efforts of the Minister for Education and of the Government in trying to get the balance right, but I genuinely believe there is a problem here. It lies within the Department guidelines. We must ensure that there is common sense, cop-on and safety. Schools have done a fantastic job in keeping the schools running up to this point.

I also want to highlight an issue to the Tánaiste that has been raised with me by leaving certificate students, which relates to the issues in terms of the cold and children not being able to concentrate. The students are looking for the hybrid examination model. They feel that their studies have been disrupted and they cannot concentrate in class. I am calling for that issue to be addressed and for clarity to be given to leaving certificate students.

There is a group meeting today on that issue. I agree with the Deputy that it is important that leaving certificate students have clarity about this. They need to know the rules of the game, exactly what exam they are preparing for and the format and context of it. We will provide them with that clarity in the very near future.

When it comes to the pandemic, we are now moving into a different phase and chapter of managing it. Certainly, the risk in schools is lower than it was a few months ago, in part because the Omicron variant is less severe, because we are now able to vaccinate school children and also because of the level of immunity that has built up in our society. That leads to the reasonable view that we will have to look at all of our guidelines again. There will be a NPHET meeting today. There will be a Cabinet meeting on Friday. On foot of that, we expect to be able to ease restrictions. Following that, the change in the balance of risk will allow us to update our guidelines not just in relation to schools but also in relation to workplaces. We intend to do that.

As the pandemic winds down, we hope, we can look back at a lot of things. During the pandemic, one of the key shifts in the country was towards working from home. The Tánaiste himself has acknowledged that it is one of the key changes that is most likely to last from this pandemic. For many in this State, there is a huge obstacle to working from home, which is either a very poor broadband connection from an existing provider, or no availability of broadband. Two years ago, we had a general election just before the National Broadband Plan, NBP, was announced to much fanfare. It contained many excellent aspirations. It was to cost €3 billion, of which the State was going to contribute €2.6 billion. We were going to see 538,000 homes connected, 90% of them by the end of 2024.

There was a specific target that by the end of this month 115,000 homes would have been passed, which means they would be able to avail of connection. Of course, we can bring a horse to water but we cannot make it drink. People may not want to connect. However, 115,000 people would be able to connect to broadband. The Business Post reported that this target was downgraded to 60,000 homes. By the end of December, only 33,000 homes had been passed. Where does the broadband plan now lie? Is the Tánaiste confident that it will be done? If so, when? How far behind are we? I appreciate the Tánaiste is going to say we had a pandemic but much of the work to be done was outdoor work. There was never a better time for digging up roads and working in quiet country areas.

My second and related question is one I have asked repeatedly for the past 12 months. A key commitment in the programme for Government is to give additional powers to ComReg to introduce administrative sanctions against companies that are not fulfilling their contracts. This is where people already, in name at least, have a broadband connection but it is not good and they are not able to use it and they contact their providers. Eir was terrible for a while and this is an issue I have raised. Where does it lie now? The Tánaiste specifically told us that he, along with the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, was drafting a Bill that would contain it. The Bill was to be introduced first of all after Christmas last year and then after Easter last year. Where is the Bill? It is of importance to facilitate people working from home, which has many public health benefits and many benefits for people's lives and for rural communities throughout the State.

I will bring the competition (amendment) Bill to Cabinet next Tuesday and I expect it to be published later in the week. It will give the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, and potentially ComReg, additional powers to impose administrative fines and make it easier to fine companies that are in breach of the rules and competition law and to give the agency more powers on interception and, in particular, surveillance. The legislation will go to Cabinet on Tuesday and will be published sometime next week.

With regard to the national broadband plan itself, National Broadband Ireland commenced connection to the new fibre network in January this year. More than 54,000 premises are available for order and pre-order in 21 counties. These are Carlow, Clare, Cavan, Cork, Galway, Kerry, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois, Leitrim, Limerick, Louth, Mayo, Monaghan, Roscommon, Sligo, Tipperary, Waterford, Westmeath, Wexford and Wicklow. Despite the unprecedented challenges presented by the pandemic, National Broadband Ireland is making steady progress on the delivery of high-speed fibre broadband under the national broadband plan. The company has advised us that as of 7 January more than 154,000 premises are constructed or under construction, demonstrating that the project is reaching scale. National Broadband Ireland has confirmed that more than 5,000 premises have been connected as of 7 January. This figure is increasing week on week. To date, the level of connections are in line with projections and in some areas they are exceeding targets. For example, one area has seen a 25% uptake only after a few months of going live. It is the case that we are behind schedule but we can speed things up and we will do everything that we can to do so. This is a project I and the Government believe in. It can make a really big difference for rural Ireland and for becoming one of the only countries in the world to connect every farm and business to high-speed broadband, thus opening up possibilities for investment and home working that do not exist at present.

Those figures are somewhat at odds with some of the figures being reported. I hope the Government is verifying what it is being told by the persons and consortium behind the national broadband plan. We were all told the country would be largely connected by 2024. People can go online and type in their details and request an update as to when they will be connected and are being told it is anticipated they will be connected in 2025 or 2026. I appreciate that anecdotal evidence is easy to come by and is not very much good to anybody but I know of plenty of people. Is the plan on target? Is it over budget? The cost was to be €3 billion and now it is €5 billion. We have learned the person heading it up did so with an equity investment of €116,000. This is a lot of money but to head up a project of this size it is a very small personal commitment. Most of this is being funded by very high interest loans. If it goes belly up in the middle of it there will be many secured creditors and the Government will effectively have to bail it out. Is the Tánaiste able to say we will meet the connection and financial targets?

The figures I placed on the record of the Dáil were provided to me by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications. I am sure it verifies them but I will check that it does so because it is important. It is fair to say we are behind target in the roll-out of the national broadband plan. We have not passed as many homes as had been anticipated. The figures I have indicate the numbers connected are doing quite well and are largely in line with the target. As the Deputy pointed out, we can pass premises but there is no obligation on them to connect. Estimates were made on how quickly people would connect and this appears to be happening in line with or better than target. We are behind in the number of premises passed. We can catch up and we intend to do so. With regard to the project, as far as I understand it is on budget because the way the contract is structured is that the company largely gets paid for the work it has done. It only gets the money when a premises is passed. If it runs behind schedule we pay less, if this makes any sense.