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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 20 Jan 2022

Vol. 1016 No. 5

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

I want to raise again with the Tánaiste an issue I have raised a number of times. This is the need for the Brandon report to be published in full. It found there were 108 incidents of sexual abuse perpetrated against at least 18 intellectually disabled residents by another resident between 2003 and 2016 at the Ard Gréine Court complex, Stranorlar, County Donegal. The publication of the report has been blocked at every turn by the HSE, the Garda and now by the Attorney General, according to reports in The Irish Times and by RTÉ. The Attorney General has legitimate concerns relating to victims families' rights to confidentiality. Equally there are legitimate rights in the desire of some families to have the report published in full. If any family wants personal information withheld, it can be redacted and the full report published. Does the Tánaiste, who is leader of his party, agree? If so, what will he do to ensure the full report will be published?

I thank the Deputy. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, was very keen to have this report published in full. She sought the advice of the Attorney General whose very strong legal advice was that it could not be published in full for reasons that have been explained. The Deputy is asking me whether it could be published in a redacted form. That I do not know. Perhaps it can be but it is something I will take up with the Minister.

I did not have a chance to speak in the House yesterday and very briefly I want to add my condolences to those expressed yesterday to Ashling Murphy's family, friends, community and colleagues. This unimaginable tragedy is one that has left the country reeling. I know it particularly resonated with so many women as their worst fears were realised. As a society, with the Government leading, we must do much more to make sure it does not happen again and women do not live in that fear. I heard some of what was said in the House yesterday. The powerful and shocking testimony by Members, particularly female Members, makes clear how determined and united we all are on this issue. I thank the Garda for the immense work it is doing on this case. I reiterate on behalf of the Government and on my own behalf a request for people to desist from speculation on the matter and to allow the justice process to take its course.

I appreciate the comments that Tánaiste made earlier on the leaving certificate. I understand a meeting is taking place today with the education partners. There have been some very welcome comments from Government sources, including Deputies and Senators, who have been advocating for a hybrid model for the leaving certificate. Does the Tánaiste agree with these comments that have come from his own party? Will he commit that between today and tomorrow we will have finality on this?

If the Cabinet is meeting tomorrow, there would be a reasonable expectation from the students who are sitting their leaving certificate that some clarity will be brought before the weekend because this really cannot trundle on much further than that.

I thank the Deputy. As he mentioned, those meetings are happening today. We hope and expect to be able to give students clarity on the format of the leaving certificate in the very near future. As the Deputy is aware, the orals and aurals will be taking place during the Easter holidays to allow more time for preparation. The decision on subject choices has been made already so there is just a final thing to decide on, which is whether there will be the hybrid or the more traditional model.

I have heard different views and the Deputy has alluded to the fact that there are different views within my own party on this. I prefer not to express a personal opinion because students do not want to hear mixed messages but just want to know what the story is going to be and we know what their clear preference is in respect of what the answer should be. I should allow those meetings to happen today and allow the Minister, Deputy Foley, to make an announcement in due course.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Given that the Tánaiste and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine are in the Chamber, the programme for Government commits to securing a sustainable future for the fisheries sector while supporting coastal communities. The small piers spread across our coastline and offshore islands are key pieces of infrastructure that support local communities. They enable the type of sustainable fishing that has been practised in Ireland for generations and facilitate recreational tourism opportunities.

The recent seafood task force recognised public marine infrastructure as a critical enabler to maximising the use and benefits to be gained from our rich marine resources. Every year Cork County Council and other local authorities receive vastly insufficient funds to even maintain, not to mention develop, these crucial pieces of infrastructure.

As I know that funding will be allocated in the coming weeks, I ask that the Government prioritise investment in this area, which needs to go further this time in order that local authorities can carry out that crucial work for coastal and island communities.

I thank Deputy Cairns for the question. I entirely concur with her on the importance of small marine infrastructure. It is very important to our inshore fisheries sector, in particular. It also allows us to develop the capacity of the marine resource from a leisure and a resource point of view. The past year, 2021, had a record level of funding for marine infrastructure under the control of local authorities. It was increased to over €4 million, which was an increase of one third on the previous year and was the highest on record. I will increase that significantly in the time ahead and I am highly cognisant of the report of the task force but, in particular, of the Government commitment to developing the potential of our coastal areas. I will be bringing forward an announcement in that regard in the near future.

The programme for Government committed to providing greater security for our tenants in the private rented sector. Those commitments are proving hollow for a group of tenants whose position I have raised on multiple occasions and who are now reaching the crunch point in a multi-unit apartment complex, St. Helen's Court, Dún Laoghaire, where a vulture fund, for no other reason than to increase the value of that property, are evicting the remaining tenants. The fund is taking them to court in the first week of February. These tenants have always paid their rent, are decent working people, have done absolutely nothing wrong and are terrified at the prospect that they are going to be made homeless. I am very worried about the mental health and well-being of some of these tenants, some of whom are elderly and unwell and the Government has nothing to offer them to date. I have raised this issue with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Taoiseach and I am raising it with the Tánaiste now because I am very worried about the well-being of these tenants. That vulture fund has been sitting on 12 empty apartments in the same complex for two years and will not even rent them to those tenants.

I appreciate that the Deputy has raised this issue with me in the past but I am not familiar with the details of the situation. I will certainly let the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, know that the Deputy has raised it again to see if he can contact the Deputy directly on the issue.

The Disabled Drivers Medical Board of Appeal has handed its resignation into the Minister for Finance. This board plays a key role in the scheme to provide relief for vehicle registration tax, VRT, and VAT on vehicles for people with disabilities. The issue revolves around the disabled drivers and passengers’ scheme which provides tax relief on the purchase of specially constructed or adapted vehicles for someone with a disability. To qualify, applicants have to obtain a primary medical certificate and the criteria for this certificate are to be without both hands or both arms, to be without one leg or two legs, be wholly or almost wholly without the use of both hands or arms and wholly or almost wholly without the use of one leg. The HSE officer assesses applicants for a certificate and if unsuccessful, the applicants can apply to the Disabled Drivers Medical Board of Appeal to make an appeal. This board has resigned. It was an independent body operating out of the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dublin. It was there that on average, less than 5% of appeals for certificates were unsuccessful. In March 2021 both members met the Minister to raise their concerns. There are almost 400 people on a waiting list and I ask the Tánaiste to please give us an update on this situation.

I am afraid I do not have an update on this issue for the Deputy but I will ask the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, to provide him with one. He will need to make an appointment, as I believe it is under his remit rather than under the Department of Health that this is done. I will have to double-check on this but he will need to appoint people to fill those positions.

There is great disappointment in both Tipperary County Council and Kilkenny County Council, which is the lead authority, in respect of the motorway and the upgrade of the N24 road project from Limerick to Waterford. While some limited funding was received to progress the Cahir to Limerick Junction stretch, no funding was received by Kilkenny County Council, which is the lead on it, to progress the project. Its consultants have been appointed but the council has been very much left in limbo with regard to further payments to these consultants and progressing this project. This is a very important piece of infrastructure to connect Foynes, Limerick and right on to Rosslare, especially with Brexit. It is very disappointing that no funding had been given to progress the work, not the physical work but the preparatory work, with consultants and all of the design work, from Cahir to Waterford. There is great anxiety in the council but also among the daily road users who find this road very dangerous, with many accidents and it is below standard.

I thank the Deputy for his question. As this is matter for Transport Infrastructure Ireland and the Minister for Transport, I will ask him to provide the Deputy with a reply on it.

On the mica redress scheme, it is seven weeks since I stood here to ask the Tánaiste to explain where the dubious sliding scale came from. On that day the Tánaiste said he reckoned that it was a sensible one. He may still hold to that thinking but he cannot continue to call it a 100% redress scheme and stand over the sliding scale at the same time. It is irrational and completely disingenuous of him. The people of Donegal are not fools and I ask that he stop the spin. I have asked a number of parliamentary questions of the Minister responsible for this issue but he fails to provide an adequate answer either. Seven weeks later, his Department has yet to release the records under the Freedom of Information Act on the issue either. This gives me the impression that the calculation was written on the back of an envelope at the very last minute in the Cabinet and rubber-stamped. There is a stench from it.

Can the Tánaiste give me a definitive timeline for when the Government will publish the mica legislation and will he commit to consigning the nonsensical sliding scale to the bin of bad ideas?

The legislation to establish the mica scheme on a statutory footing is priority legislation for the Government. It will happen this session. We expect it to be no later than Easter and probably before then.

We witnessed a very significant volcanic eruption over the weekend which obliterated the south Pacific island of Hunga Tonga. The eruption generated a tsunami and ash cloud which has devastated the island nation of Tonga. We heard this morning that the first aircraft with relief supplies has arrived from New Zealand and according to the UN, about 84,000 people, more than 80% of the population, have been badly affected by the disaster with the supply of safe drinking water being one of the top issues. Can the Tánaiste please confirm what efforts Ireland, and indeed the European Union, are making as regards the financial aid, and indeed COVAX, to support the population of over 100,000 people on the island nation?

I thank the Deputy for his question. I join the Deputy in expressing my solidarity with the people of Tonga. They have experienced an extraordinary event, a volcanic eruption and a tsunami, which has wrought devastation on that small island state. As the Deputy is aware, Ireland is a member of the international community. As a member of the UN Security Council, we have a particularly special relationship with small island developing states, including Tonga, which were very supportive of us on a number of occasions in the past. We are liaising with the United Nations, with the EU, as well as with our friends in New Zealand, to see if we can help. We are very keen to assist the Tongan people if we can.

Yesterday we saw an amazing show of cross-party support in this House on the matter of violence against women, an issue which sadly unites us all. In that vein, I want to extend that cross-party support again today because I was glad to see the Labour Party raising the matter of miscarriage leave. Miscarriage leave is something I have spoken about a number of times in this House and Deputy Carroll MacNeill and I have been championing it from the Government backbenches.

More than one in five pregnancies in Ireland ends in miscarriage. It is a common occurrence, but it is an awfully traumatic experience. It is high time we acknowledge that trauma through appropriate support for the dignity that women deserve. Can the Tánaiste give an update on the Government's review to support women who suffer miscarriage by legislating for miscarriage leave?

I very much support the introduction of leave in the event of miscarriage. The Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth is going to commission some research in this area to see what is best practice and what is done around the world. Both the Philippines and New Zealand have a law on it. I would like Ireland to be among of the first countries to do so. However, it is a complicated area, perhaps more so than it may appear. There are many different types of miscarriage and the impact can be very different, depending on the circumstances. We are introducing legislation at present to provide for sick leave for people, but we need to think about proportionality as well. For example, if one provides leave for one condition, would it be legitimate to provide less or more leave for another condition such as cancer or a mastectomy? We have to ensure that we study this in the round and ensure that anything we do would not be struck down in legal terms. That is why it will require some research and work.

Figures secured by Involve Autism show that up to November 2020 a staggering €63,579 per day was spent on taxis and buses to take children with autism to school in south Dublin. Up to November 2021, that figure increased to €72,704 per day. That is an increase of 14.4% in the cost, so every journey is costing more as the children travel further. That is €72,704 being spent every day just in south Dublin. One wonders how many autism spectrum disorder, ASD, classes could be built for that figure. Dublin 6 is an example of where the section 37A process in the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 has ended with not a single ASD class. Will the Government introduce a targeted section 37A process to address the lack of ASD classes in Dublin 2, Dublin 4, Dublin 6 and Dublin 6W as a matter of urgency?

I thank Deputy Andrews for raising this important issue. I am afraid I do not have up-to-date information on the matter but I will ask the Minister of State at the Department of Education, Deputy Madigan, to contact the Deputy's office directly with a reply as soon as possible.

The Industrial Development Agency, IDA, owns a fully serviced, 150-acre site between Carrigtwohill and Midleton in my constituency. It is lying idle since 2007. There were plans to upgrade the road outside, the N25. Millions have been spent on the plans to upgrade the road, but the plans have now been shelved and there is no clarity. There is also a plan to build 2,500 houses at the other end of that road. That is also in jeopardy. The road is extremely dangerous. I have written to the Minister for Transport and Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, but have not received a response. Can the Tánaiste provide some clarity on this matter as it is very urgent?

A number of Deputies have raised the issue of the roads programme with me in recent weeks. In the programme for Government we made a clear commitment that when it comes to investment in new transport projects, two thirds will go to public transport and one third will go to the roads programme. That means we still have a roads programme and we will continue to construct new roads and continue to produce a pipeline of additional roads. However, the money only goes so far and Transport Infrastructure Ireland has to make difficult decisions sometimes as to which projects progress in which particular year. I am concerned about the very large number of projects that appear to be stalled, particularly those that relate to road safety, accessing industrial lands to create jobs and potential lands for housing. It is something we discussed at leader level and we will see if we can do something to resolve the situation. We must prioritise investment in public transport, but we cannot have a situation whereby we do not progress important road projects that contribute to road safety, can create jobs and provide housing.

Leaving certificate students and their families are eagerly awaiting this afternoon's meeting. What they want is certainty; they want to have a decision today. They do not want this to drift further. We all can remember our leaving certificate examinations. The examination is stressful and difficult in any year, but we did not have to contend with over two months of school closures, self isolation of staff and of students and all the anxieties of the pandemic. The Tánaiste will tell me there is a meeting today. That is understood. However, that does not preclude the Government going into the meeting with a preference and an opinion. I urge the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, to go into that meeting with a preference for a choice-based model between written examinations and accredited grades. It is the fairest thing in recognition of the year the students have had. Will the Minister do that and will there be a decision today?

As the Deputy mentioned, that meeting is happening today. The Minister, Deputy Foley, is very keen to hear the views of all stakeholders - the teachers' unions, parent groups and student groups - and make a decision on it. As I mentioned earlier, the most important thing is that we should give leaving certificate students clarity in the very near future, without any unnecessary delay, about the format of the examination they will sit. It is only fair that we should give that information to them as soon as possible, but it is not for me to announce here. That meeting has to happen and the Minister, Deputy Foley, will make an announcement in early course.

The programme for Government gives an overall commitment to transparency across all Departments and programmes. In fairness, much progress has been made in the Department of Justice on Garda reform and so forth. However, in the last number of weeks we have seen the documentary "Crimes and Confessions" running on RTÉ. The most recent episode on the Sallins train robbery was shocking for people around the country and has generated public outrage about it. The events surrounding the torture and imprisonment of Osgur Breathnach, Nicky Kelly, Brian McNally and others appal people. It is time for the Government to come forward with a commitment to a full and independent public inquiry into these events, including the investigation and subsequent imprisonment of these men and, indeed, the actions of every arm of the State that was involved. It should not be limited to the behaviour of the Garda so-called heavy gang but must take into account each and every State body and Department that allowed this to happen. The first programme was on the Lynskey case in the Minister's constituency and next week's programme will be on the Kerry babies case. It is a very important issue and I invite the Minister to commit to a full public inquiry into this issue.

I thank the Deputy for his question. I watched the first programme which referred to a case many years ago in my constituency. A series of programmes has been broadcast over the last while. The Garda Síochána will always keep an open mind on any type of cold case or anything that has happened in the past, whether a case needs to be reviewed or reopened or on a more general basis in terms of any other arm of government where there needs to be further reviews or further work done. It is something the Garda Commissioner and I, as Minister for Justice, will always keep in mind. With regard to the cases the Deputy discussed, I am happy to accept any information or to meet with anyone to discuss anything further.

I ask the Minister, Deputy McEntee, to give more detail on the extensive suite of legislative measures she announced yesterday in respect of sexual offences, particularly the welcome legislation regarding non-fatal strangulation and stalking. Can she outline the timing for that and what she expects to be able to bring to the House later in the year?

The Deputy will have seen from the debate yesterday and, indeed, from the debate over many years that there is no single way to deal with domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. However, making sure that our laws are adequate is one way. It is not just introducing new laws but also improving the existing laws. Two such areas are non-fatal strangulation and stalking. I have listened to victims over the last year or so, particularly Eve McDowell and Una Ring on stalking and, sadly, some of my own friends on their experiences. I have listened to advocacy groups and An Garda Síochána on non-fatal strangulation and how that, in itself, leads to often fatal violence. Based on that engagement and consultation, I will bring forward ways in which we can strengthen and clarify the laws on those two issues. The miscellaneous provisions Bill, in which I will place both of these changes, will be published in this term and the intention is that it will be moved through the Houses as quickly as possible. Regarding the other legislative measures, some will be published in this term, some will be published in the next term and some will be in the third term of the year.

A pre-qualification tender for the provision of the Irish Coast Guard aviation service was published before Christmas. It specifies at least three bases nationally. Currently, there are four - Sligo, Shannon, Waterford and Dublin.

It is absolutely essential the R118 emergency service continues to operate from Sligo Airport. For the past two years, on the basis of call-outs, Sligo has been the busiest of the four national bases, covering an area from Galway to Belfast.

Sligo has a major disadvantage in tendering. The other six airports receive Government funding and there is €159 million, including capital funding, allocated over the next four years but Sligo is not included. There is massive concern that Rescue 118 will be taken from Sligo. I am asking the Tánaiste for a guarantee that Sligo will be one of these bases.

As a former Minister with responsibility for transport, I am very aware of this matter and the essential search and rescue services provided by our Coast Guard and its contractors. As there is a contractual process under way, I am a little limited in what I can say. I can say what we expect to be the outcome and a contractual process must follow. We anticipate the outcome will be that there will continue to be four bases and they will be the same four bases at Waterford, Sligo, Cork and Dublin. I think it is those four. There is a contractual process under way, however, and it must follow a certain procedure. I hope it can give people some reassurance that the Government is very happy with the service we have currently and we would not like to see it diminished.

The programme for Government speaks a lot about transparency and accountability, as well as public service reform as mentioned on page 119 of the document specifically. I do not want to address the matter the Tánaiste was discussing in his radio interview last Sunday but, unfortunately, he said about his authority in terms of the public service:

We do not have authority over civil servants. We have no power to reprimand them or discipline them.

Is the Tánaiste aware of his responsibility and authority, given under section 2 of the Ministers and Secretaries Act 1924? If he is, is he not aware that he and his fellow Ministers, as the corporations sole, can and should be responsible for disciplining or examining the acts of Secretaries General in particular should misdemeanours occur? The Public Service Management Act 1997 and the Civil Service Regulation Act 1956 do not apply to disciplining them. Is it the Government's position that Secretaries General, earning between €190,000 and €300,000 per year, are, in effect, responsible to nobody when misdemeanours occur, be they impromptu or premeditated?

I thank the Deputy. I am very much aware of the Ministers and Secretaries Act 1924, as is anybody who has had the privilege of holding ministerial office. I know it confers enormous responsibility on Ministers but it does not confer on them the authority to discipline or reprimand civil servants.

They are responsible to nobody then.

There are processes in place.

We just give them a €90,000 bonus or put them into ambassadorial roles around the world.

Could we allow the Tánaiste to reply?

He has not given an answer.

As I said, when it comes to any public servant, there are-----

Under what Act? I am specifically referring to Secretaries General.

Deputy MacSharry, you are now eating into colleagues' time. Please.

I get very little time. Other colleagues are up and down like a jack-in-the-box.

The Deputy is eating into colleagues' time on the double now. Please have a little respect.

Would you ask the Tánaiste to answer the question? What is the Act?

I ask you to desist from interrupting. I will now move to the next speaker.

On 30 September last year, the term of seven members of the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, board came to an end. That board now cannot be constituted and four months later there is still no sign of new appointees taking office. When will the appointments be made and if those appointments are to be delayed, would it be possible, even on a temporary basis, to reappoint some of the members so the board can start to function and go about the business it should? That includes appointing WRC inspectors, and the Tánaiste and I both know these are very badly needed. There is a commitment in the programme for Government to increase those numbers but that cannot happen without the board. Will the Tánaiste give that timeframe and if he cannot, will the Government consider, even on a temporary basis, the reappointment of some members so the board can function?

That file is with the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, as the matter was delegated to him. I anticipate those seven appointments will be made probably as soon as this week, or if not this week then next week.

I also raise the question of funding for the N24 Waterford to Cahir road. This was at an advanced stage of picking a route and the consultants that were engaged to do the work must clearly be disengaged. There are a number of people along those three corridors for the proposed route and they have been told their land will be frozen for another prolonged period, which is just not acceptable. Money has already been spent on surveys and consultancy to get the project to this stage. There is a serious question mark about whether, when funding recommences, we will have to go back to scratch and start again. A sum of €2 million would keep the consultants engaged for 2022 and it is not acceptable that the route for this road is not being proceeded with or finalised.

I have enormous sympathy for people who are affected by sterilisation with regard to road projects. Even if takes a long time for a road to be built, just going from five possible routes to one frees four tracts of land. If the road project is more advanced, narrowing a wide corridor a bit can free land on which people can build houses, farm buildings, etc. I very much appreciate the dilemma many people around the country face as a consequence of the announcement by Transport Infrastructure Ireland. The Government is discussing that currently. Even if it takes a long time to build some of these roads or get them started, being able to desterilise or free people's land is really important. We will do that if we can.

Sitting suspended at 1.07 p.m. and resumed at 1.47 p.m.