Skip to main content
Normal View

Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 25 Jan 2022

Vol. 1016 No. 6

An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

It has been agreed that the report of the Business Committee, having been circulated, can be taken as read. Are the proposed arrangements for this week's business agreed to?

They are not agreed.

I call Deputy McGrath.

The price of oil was raised on Leaders’ Questions. The AA has now done a survey to say that we are one of the highest countries in the world for petrol and diesel prices. We had over 32 increases last year. The miserly €100 that is promised for later on in the year, perhaps March or April, will not go anywhere near helping people. The cost of everything, including groceries, is affected by the fuel that is needed for trucks, factories and everything else. How will we recover our economy with this spiralling crisis? I am asking for a debate here on the madness in the prices and the increases in energy costs.

I thank Deputy McGrath and call Deputy Connolly.

I know that with a puff from the magic dragon the restrictions were lifted at 6 o’clock last Friday. It would be churlish of me not to recognise the sense of relief and excitement felt by many people. Equally, many people have wondered what the context of this is, with a decision made outside of the Dáil, with no discussion and with a clár oibre anseo gan Covid-19 luaite beag ná mór. I am asking for a full debate on the context of Covid-19 and on the lifting of restrictions. We are all getting phone calls from nursing homes, for example, where people still cannot go in to visit their loved ones and where day centres are not operating. None of this has been put in perspective in respect of when the indemnity with the pharmaceutical companies comes to an end, or in respect of the compensation scheme. I do not expect the Taoiseach to answer now on all of these issues but I am asking for a full and frank discussion on an informed basis on the floor of the Dáil this week or next week, or as soon as possible.

I thank the Deputy. Do any other Members wish to speak? No. I call the Taoiseach now.

This is the first time I have even been referred to as a magic dragon. There may have been a few dragons in it in terms of the public health decision. I believe that a Dáil debate on this matter is a very good idea. Perhaps it can be facilitated next week because we need a reflection and an analysis on people’s inputs on the advices we received from NPHET on the decisions that we subsequently took as a Government, and on the broader position as we move out now in the next number of months with policies that we need to embed within our health service, and so on, in dealing with any further surges, iterations or new variants of concern. I would be in favour of that.

We had a discussion earlier on the issue of energy prices. The legislation governing the rebate from electricity prices should be coming into the House next week. Maybe that will give an opportunity on Second Stage for a debate on the issues that Deputy Mattie McGrath has raised. That would make sense to me.

Are the arrangements for this week agreed to?

They are agreed.

Agreed. Thank you very much. On the Order of Business, I call Deputy McDonald.

The Women of Honour came forward to share personal and harrowing stories of sexual harassment, violence and bullying within the Defence Forces. I commend their courage. As the Taoiseach will know, the women have been very clear in their call for an independent investigative statutory process to look at these very serious allegations.

Despite this, the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, insists that only a review will take place. The women have rejected this as a paper exercise. Women of Honour will meet with the Minister for Defence again this afternoon. Will the Minister finally listen to the women and put in place the thorough, independent investigation they are seeking? If he refuses to do that, will the Taoiseach intervene to make sure this happens?

First, I again commend and pay tribute to the Women of Honour for their courage in coming forward to tell their stories and also to effect fundamental change in terms of the culture and behaviour in the Defence Forces in respect of any violence against women in the Defence Forces, or against vulnerable males as well. The Minister for Defence is acting, and has engaged, very sincerely with the Women of Honour on this issue. He will make an announcement this evening, but he is meeting with the group later this afternoon. I do not wish to pre-empt that meeting or the Minister's decision. A range of measures have been taken already but, notwithstanding that, there certainly is a need for a more fundamental independent review.

Unfortunately, the delayed right to request flexible work law comes too late for many workers. What many want is to continue the flexible arrangements that were put in place. With the flexibility over the last two years, statistically more women were in full-time employment than ever previously, moving from part-time work to full-time work. This is an important factor in the Government's decision today. The Government has outlined 13 reasons whereby employers or bosses still have the upper hand. What has emerged from the Government does not take any account of the changed circumstances workers have had over the last two years. The power is still with the bosses. The idea that somebody can go to the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, where there is a 15-month waiting time and no legal aid, is just a joke. Will the Taoiseach not guarantee workers, particularly women who have benefited hugely from this statistically, a real right to flexible work and continued flexible work into the future?

We should acknowledge the progress that has been made since the first strategy relating to remote working was published early last year. In fact, I believe Finland, Luxembourg and Ireland top the EU league table in terms of working from home, at over 20%, although I am open to correction on that. That is an indication of the progress-----

It has been a necessity.

-----and also the balanced and partnership approach that has been the hallmark of the Irish employer-employee relationship generally. The heads of the legislation the Government agreed today in respect of giving an employee the right to request remote working is another positive, progressive step forward. That will come to the House to be debated and all Deputies will have an input into it. In addition, we have made significant progress in all the investment we have made in remote working hubs. That has been quite dramatic and will facilitate remote working for many people.

Yesterday was International Day of Education. While we laud ourselves as a country with high completion rates in mainstream education, as has just occurred in the debate between the Taoiseach and Deputy Paul Murphy, the fact is that many students are being left behind every year. The DEIS retention rate for the leaving certificate is 84.8% compared to 91.5% nationally. This has left alternative education providers and centres, such as the Cork Life Centre in the Taoiseach's constituency, to provide a second chance at education. They have been doing this with great, but often unrecognised, success. In 2018, the then Department of Education and Skills conducted a formal review of alternative education under action 88 of the DEIS plan. It is still not published, although we know it has been completed. That plan is with the Minister and the Department. When will the review of alternative education be published? We cannot move forward with strategies for a sustained future for alternative education without this report being released.

The Minister secured record additional funding this year for the DEIS programme. The details of that will have to be announced, but I believe it could represent a 20% increase in additional cover for DEIS schools; in other words, an additional 20% being added to the existing cohort.

That will be good and impactful. We have provided additional funding to the Cork Life Centre. I will check with the Minister. The broader review should be published as soon as possible.

The Taoiseach raised some interesting points in the previous discussion about a wage price spiral. He seemed to indicate he was against the idea of workers submitting claims for pay increases that would be in line with inflation, leaving aside the fact that he did not seem to express the same concerns when Robert Watt got a pay increase of €81,000. It is one rule for the top people and another for ordinary working people.

Let us look at the matter at hand. We are told the consumer price index is up 5.5%, and that does not include many costs, including rent. The real rate of inflation for working people is higher. It seems that what the Taoiseach is saying in reality is that workers must accept a pay cut or suck it up and not put in for higher wage increases. I think workers should put in for higher wage increases and pursue them in a vigorous fashion.

The time is up.

I have a final point. There is talk of giving people €100 when their energy bills are up by €1,000 per year. That is a joke.

Once again, the Deputy is clearly distorting what I said. I never said anything of that sort. I said the Government must enter into discussions with social partners and others to see what would be the most targeted and effective way to give families and workers a way to protect their disposable income without adding to the inflationary cycle. That is what I said.

No, the Taoiseach specified wage inflation.

I am talking to Deputy Barry.

That is not what the Taoiseach said, in fairness.

It is what I said.

It is what I said. Sorry, Deputy. Let us not start distorting.

The Taoiseach is wrong.

The Deputies can do that when they are part of the Opposition. They can always label the Government as wrong.

The Taoiseach was targeting the idea of-----

I was very clear in what I said. I said we would enter into discussions with the social partners. It is on the record. I mentioned a more targeted approach, and I instanced as an example the Vincentian model in terms of minimum income standards.

Let us check the record of what the Taoiseach said.

I instanced the changes that have been made already in health-----

Let us check the record of what he actually said.

-----relating to the eligibility of children for GP care, the drug payment scheme threshold being reduced and hospital charges for children being reduced.

The time is up.

There are targeted ways of doing this without adding to the inflationary cycle. That is what I am saying.

The Taoiseach spoke of a spiralling wage inflation at a time when people's wages are flat and those people are put to the pin of their collars.

Scientific research has been a key plank of Ireland's economic and industrial policy and it has also been vital in enabling us to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. That is down to our scientists, many of whom were inspired to go into research through their engagement with Science Gallery Dublin. Science Gallery Dublin has gone international, with offshoots ranging from the United States to Australia. Next month, however, the original gallery here in Ireland is set to shut its doors for the last time, undermining our strategy as a country to position itself as a world leader in science and technology. Reading between the lines, it seems the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media are in dispute as to which will contribute to the operational shortfall. This short-sighted internal bickering must stop and the doors of the gallery must be kept open for Ireland's sake.

The Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science has engaged with Trinity College Dublin. With the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, it has offered to provide funding for a number of years to help to contribute towards a sustainable model in Science Gallery Dublin. Trinity College Dublin needs to do work to develop a new vision and a sustainable financial model for the long-term future of the science gallery. The Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is awaiting a submission from Trinity College Dublin on those matters. There is a separate issue around the contractual arrangements with the existing staff of the gallery and that is a matter for Trinity College Dublin and its staff.

The Taoiseach promised numerous times in this Chamber and in the convention centre that he would meet the action group for St. Brigid's hospital in Carrick-on-Suir, which his Minister closed unceremoniously in the middle of the so-called pandemic. Will the Taoiseach meet those people or why does he keep telling us that he will? It is a simple request to meet the committee and the Taoiseach said he had no problem meeting them. He said he would meet them at the drop of a hat. He has never met the committee and neither has the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, nor the Minister of State with responsibility for older people, Deputy Butler. These people want to plead their case for the wonderful facility they had, including four hospice beds that are badly needed for the community.

It has served the area of east Waterford, south Kilkenny and south Tipperary well. That hospital needs to be reopened. Will the Taoiseach meet the committee? There is no point in the Taoiseach telling me that he will. I ask him to arrange to meet them, to facilitate them and to listen to them.

I do not know if the Deputy asked through my office or what-----

I asked here in the Chamber.

Has a request come in?

I am sure it has but I will check it again.

The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, did meet with the group.

Outside in the glass cage for a few minutes.

I did meet them.

Deputy McGrath just said that she did not.

My question is very specific. Will the Taoiseach comply with the will of this Dáil in relation to the national maternity hospital? On three different occasions, the Dáil, including the Taoiseach's Government, unanimously agreed to a motion providing that the new hospital will be a public hospital on a public site, owned and run by the State through the agency. I want the Taoiseach to commit, please, and to tell me that he is going to act in accordance with what we have asked for in three separate motions over the past nine months. The Government has accepted those motions on each occasion. There might have been a nuanced difference, but that was all. We want a public maternity hospital on a site that is publicly owned.

Motions never built a hospital. It just amazes me the degree to which it takes so long in this country to build hospitals. We urgently need a national------

That was not the question.

I just want to make my point in response.

It is on the Taoiseach's watch.

It will not happen on my watch. It is going to be built, and it will be commenced and be done with the public interest as the number one with regard to the lands and governorship and so on.

I would like to raise with the Taoiseach today the issue of autism spectrum disorder, ASD, provision in secondary schools in particular. I spoke to the Taoiseach privately about this in the past, and I have spoken about it publicly here in the Dáil. At present, small villages outside the city of Cork, such as Dripsey, Farran and Berrings, have three, four or often five ASD classes. Unfortunately, larger urban settlements in those areas sometimes have one or two such classes, if any at all. Will the Taoiseach indicate when we are going to implement a policy that ensures every child in this country has the opportunity to attend an ASD class in their own locality? At present, the ratio is 3:1 primary versus secondary school with regard to ASD class provision. That is not sustainable, and we need urgent action.

I agree with that. The Minister for Education is pursuing that. I do not have the timelines for the policy initiatives on that front, but I will revert back to the Deputy on the matter.

Over recent years, tens of thousands of individuals have filled key roles in our society working in hospitality, healthcare, logistics and much beyond. Many of these individuals are on precarious visas and work permits. While there have been some very welcome extensions throughout the pandemic, many of these people are facing a very precarious future. I ask the Government to commit to a blanket two-year extension of all work permits and all visas, to ensure that those people who helped us when we were at our worst can enjoy this country properly, and that we can address many of the major labour shortages across an array of industries.

The Deputy has made a very fair point and I will certainly pursue that with the Minister.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the time today. The recent "Crimes and Confessions" series has shone a spotlight on the interrogation and investigation of innocent people by some members of An Garda Síochána: people including Nicky Kelly, Osgur Breatnach, and the Hayes family in my own constituency. We have heard allegations of bullying, assaults and torture. We heard about statements that were tailored or, in the words of the Hayes family solicitor Mr. Patrick Mann, "dovetailed" to fit the information that they had. I ask the Taoiseach to support an independent statutory public inquiry into the investigation and prosecution of these people, compliant with international human rights standards and under a recognised judicial figure.

Generally, we need to reflect on the broad issue of having statutory public inquiries one after the other, irrespective of this, and I do not believe anybody would doubt that these are serious cases the Deputy has raised.

Previously, the Oireachtas decided to have statutory inquiries that have gone on for five, six or seven years with no conclusion. It is not a model that is working.

The apologies are not-----

The inquiry model is not working, if I am honest. It takes an inordinate length of time for them to conclude at an extraordinary cost. Deputies have referred to Siteserv. I could name them all. I am making the point that we all genuinely felt the need to have-----

Then find another model.

We have. A commission of inquiry was meant to be an alternative model to a public inquiry.

Time is up, Taoiseach.

There is a lack of capacity in this country to have an inquiry without an adversarial dimension, barristers and lawyering up-----

The apology-----

I have to make the point. I want to be fair.

The Taoiseach could answer the question.

It might be a Topical Issue, Deputy.

I am answering the question. The easy answer is to say "Yes" or "No". It is a more honest to ask whether we need to interrogate this model before we start an inquiry. Every week someone asks for an inquiry about something.

The Taoiseach should not trivialise this.

I am not trivialising it; I am serious about this. We need to analyse this as an Oireachtas because it is the Oireachtas that decides to have inquiries, but they take an extraordinary length of time and are not giving people closure at the end of it all.

The Taoiseach does not want to respond to the question.

I am serious. I will meet with party leaders to discuss this, if the Deputy wishes. We need a discussion about this.

I would like the Taoiseach to give people answers to their questions-----

I am giving the answer, but the Deputy-----

-----and not trivialise it-----

I could name seven inquiries that there should be in Northern Ireland about the activities of your movement over the years, but we have never had them. Talk to the people in Northern Ireland who were kneecapped for decades. There was never any closure.


I will meet with people to discuss this, but at the moment the model we have is not working.

Deputies, please. This is chaotic behaviour. Will we please come back to some sort of order? A number of people will not be called simply because of this carry-on.

I wish to make the point that I did answer, and I was heckled again for answering.

I know you did.

The medical board of appeal for primary medical certificates resigned at the beginning of the month. The reason cited for the resignation of the board was a unanimous view that the criteria are too stringent and, in its view, exclude a lot of people who should be entitled to the payment.

I want to tell the Taoiseach about Dwayne, who at 14 years of age was diagnosed with two serious neurological disorders, one being a brain defect and the second a cyst that has caused significant damage to his spinal cord for the past 20 years. He is now aged 35 and has progressive symptom of numbness and dragging his right foot. He cannot drive a vehicle unless it is modified. His appeal to the board was unsuccessful. Naturally, he feels aggrieved and discriminated against. Evidently, the board was correct in its assumption that people who are worthy are not being included in the scheme. Given that almost 400 cases have to be heard, when will a new board be appointed? Will the criteria be amended to include people such as Dwayne who need and deserve a primary medical certificate?

I thank the Deputy for asking this very fair question. The Minister for Finance, on foot of the decision by the board, is now reviewing the entire issue. It is to be hoped he will be able to come back with proposals on it.

Does the Taoiseach agree that now is the appropriate time to establish a Government commission of inquiry into all of the circumstances surrounding the deaths of 23 residents from Covid in Dealgan House nursing home in April 2020? Of the 460 nursing homes in the country, this is the only one where the HSE took over operational management to ensure appropriate medical and nursing staff were in place to make sure that residents' well-being was looked after. There are major concerns over the way the home was run and the absence of appropriate management. No GP was physically present to support the residents between 17 April and 30 April. Will the Taoiseach examine and appropriately appoint a commission of inquiry, as happened in the case of Leas Cross, given the exceptional circumstances surrounding these deaths?

I have to be consistent with what I said in response to Deputy Daly's question. I am not convinced that commissions of inquiries are the optimal way to investigate these issues. They go on much longer than people anticipate or expect. This is a genuine issue; I do not want the Deputy to get me wrong. The Department is examining a variety of options as to how best to respect and meet the needs and concerns of families of those affected.

The Leas Cross inquiry worked.

There may be more.

People will not be satisfied unless there is an inquiry into this.

I know, but people will not be satisfied with an inquiry that goes on for six years. I am just trying to be honest with the House.

It will not go on for six years.

Some can and some do.

This one will not.

I am saying there might be other ways of doing it. There might be a better way of doing it.

This is the only home that was taken over by the HSE. No other home in the country-----

I thank the Deputy. We have heard his point.

What I am going to ask the Taoiseach for is very sensible and sound and I am sure everyone in this House will agree with it. When a person receives a diagnosis of cancer, I humbly ask him, the Minister for Health and the Department of Health that for a three-month period an emergency medical card would be given to that person. This was the case in the past. It was not a law or a rule, but unofficially the diagnosis of cancer equalled a medical card for a period of time to allow the person and their family to come to grips with the enormity of what they were facing in their lives. I think we should look at it again.

At this time the message should go out from here to our hospitals to allow a proper phased reintroduction of visits to people who are suffering from illnesses like cancer in our hospitals because they desperately want their visitors to come in. I would be very anxious for the Taoiseach to help.

The Department is always very reluctant to pick one condition over another condition for eligibility for medical cards. There is provision for people who get a terminal diagnosis. We are trying to reduce the cost of care for people in certain situations. We are also extending eligibility, particularly through access to a GP visit card, which, as the Deputy knows, we have for children. I understand the points he is making. As he knows, discretion has applied in many circumstances.

The €100 to offset the absolutely shocking increases in energy and fuel prices that people will be struck with over the coming weeks is pathetically inadequate. I am already getting reports of people getting energy bills that have increased by 125% in the bills that are going to drop in the next few weeks. The Government needs to do more than it is doing. We have repeatedly urged it to use its powers under the consumer Act to declare an emergency in energy prices, to control the unit prices of electricity and heating fuel, and to expand access to the fuel allowance for the many pensioners and people on low pay who do not benefit from it.

I thank the Deputy. The point is made.

Will the Government take the sort of radical action that is necessary?

There is a global context here and I am very struck by the apparent refusal by those on the Opposition side, who are asking questions about this, to acknowledge the role of Russia in the supply of gas to Europe. The Deputy can nod all he likes, but it is a key factor here.

We will talk about that later.

No, the Deputy never talks about it. That is the problem. He never will.

We do not side with NATO on it.

We are working on it. I replied earlier.

The Government's announcement last Friday had a notable absence that caused considerable worry among a significant portion of the population. There was no mention of nursing homes. Residents in nursing homes have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic. Will the Government issue specific instructions to nursing homes ensuring that our older people have appropriate access to family visits, as some nursing homes are still denying these? We need clear guidelines to ensure that a balance between physical and mental health. I note that the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, are present. If the Taoiseach cannot answer, perhaps they can.

Basic guidelines and rules that were there are still there in respect of nursing homes and, therefore, the same rules apply. A comprehensive package of indirect and direct supports has been given to nursing homes since the onset of Covid. That continued engagement between the HSE and nursing homes will continue, particularly in respect of nursing homes that may have had outbreaks. The HSE will be there to assist and support nursing homes in whatever challenges they have. The supports continue with free personal protective equipment; free FFP2 masks; public health Covid-19 response team; infection protection and control training; and so forth.

There is no mention of the citizens' assembly on drugs in the spring legislative programme. The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Feighan, was before the Joint Committee on Health last week where he made a number of references to the assembly. He was talking of a way of dealing with the difficult outstanding issues and progressing them. Is this still a priority of Government and when does it intend to establish the assembly, as per the commitment in the programme for Government?

The Minister of State and the Government are keen on a more specific approach to drugs policy, particularly in an approach to area partnerships as a broader way of dealing with the issue, particularly in areas that have a higher level of challenges in respect of drug use and misuse. A number of a citizens' assemblies have been proposed in respect of a lord mayor in Dublin, drugs and biodiversity, and I am anxious that we get a number of those up and running this year. I will revert to the Deputy. I have an interest in getting the citizens' assembly on biodiversity up and running as well. The drugs policy is an issue not just for a citizens' assembly but for current policy.