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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 9 Mar 2022

Vol. 1019 No. 4

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

We as a team have been raising the issue of the cost of living for a year, I think. The Taoiseach acknowledges and we all know the pressure that people are under; therefore, it is incumbent on us to act and to prepare to act. On several occasions this afternoon, the Taoiseach has referenced the price of food. From his commentary, I am reading that he assumes sharp increases in food prices. He mentioned Ukraine as the breadbasket of the world, so the price of bread, for example, will rise. What plans, preparations and mitigations has the Government made for the likely spike in food prices? What preparations have been made at a European level to ensure we have full and necessary flexibility to protect our people?

I am not sure the Deputy has been that consistent on cost of living over the past while. How strong was her party's budget submission on fuel prices and various measures? It was quite weak.

The Government put fuel up in the budget.

In the North, the Sinn Féin finance minister has €300 million and is saying he cannot deploy it because of rules and is not allowed to. The Deputy needs to reflect on her party's policies and lack of preparation.

Múinteoir, I will go home and reflect. I will do lines for you, if you like, and bring them in, or detention.

The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, met with farming organisations yesterday in respect of the situation that could emerge, in terms of ensuring we avoid a fodder crisis next autumn and the obvious implications if Ukrainians do not plant grain this season because of the war and likewise in terms of Russia. We are working on it but it will be a supply-and-demand reality that we have to grow more.

I will speak of Ukrainian children who may come into our education system. A child coming to a new country, walking into a classroom and not understanding what anybody is saying faces a particularly difficult experience, especially if that child has run for his or her life. Children of Ukrainian-Irish families and children of a Russian background in our school system will also need support. Will the Taoiseach speak to those families and to the Government's intention to provide every support possible to Ukrainian and Russian children currently in our education system, those who may be coming into the system and to those teachers, SNAs and school communities who will be working with these families? Will he give an assurance that no resources will be spared to ensure their experience in the education system is empowering?

The Deputy is making a fair point. The challenges for Ukrainian children fleeing war to access our schools will be enormous, in terms of how we respond from an educational perspective. The Government will not be able to do it all on its own and will have to draw on resources across society, particularly from the perspectives of psychology, language and curriculum content. It will involve working with the Ukrainian community in Ireland and identifying what talents Ukrainian people coming in have, so we can redeploy those talents to help in the mission the Deputy spoke about. I agree with him that it is a significant issue that we have to address. We will spare no effort in doing so.

This week is women's health week. Unfortunately, Ireland is still failing women in the provision of high-quality healthcare. While the CervicalCheck scandal and the shortages of HRT are prominent examples, many other issues are not receiving the support required. Endometriosis affects up to one in ten women, yet such is the lack of services that waiting for diagnosis can take up to nine years. While waiting for treatment, women can experience fertility issues, severe menstrual pain, damage to internal organs and chronic fatigue and nausea. This is a serious condition that has a real impact on many women but there are too few specialists in the area and GPs are not properly resourced, leading to a focus on pain relief and self-medication rather than addressing the issues. What actions will the Taoiseach take to improve the service?

The Minister for Health yesterday announced a women's healthcare strategy, with significant expenditure, which also involves the establishment of specific endometriosis clinics, which would deal with issues in a multidisciplinary way. The measures announced yesterday contain a focused approach, and funding has also been allocated.

What is the Taoiseach doing to ensure that the big oil companies do not simply pocket the excise duty cut? Reports are already coming in of petrol stations increasing their prices for petrol and diesel today before the cut. Around the corner from where I live, one petrol station increased the price of diesel by 15 cent at lunchtime today. Presumably, then, the station will reduce the price tonight by 15 cent, having made a tidy profit. The petrol being sold now was bought some time ago at lower prices, so the companies are already taking advantage of the crisis to make some bumper profits while they can. We welcome the cut to the rate of excise duty and we have pushed for a cut in VAT as well, but fundamentally what we need, at least alongside these measures, are price controls. The Taoiseach spoke earlier again and again about how we are in wartime. Under the Consumer Protection Act 2007, the Government has the power to bring in price controls. We need them for petrol, home heating oil, gas, electricity and so on.

The Consumer Protection and Competition Commission exists to pursue any companies breaking the law, price gouging or behaving in an anti-competitive manner. Equally, as I said earlier, this is an internationally-traded commodity and we must take that reality on board in respect of price caps or price controls, which have never worked in the past as a mechanism to deal with situations like this.

University Hospital Waterford, UHW, remains the most underfunded of nine in the country. In 2016, the Taoiseach and his party gave a commitment to deliver 24-7 cardiac care to the south-east region, yet in the intervening six years, however, not one single hour of additional service has been provided and we remain at 39 hours per week. Along with 14 other Deputies from the south east, I wrote to the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, on 15 December, 3 February and again on 7 March, requesting that he meet all Deputies from the south-east region and asking him to take personal charge of the resourcing and capital issues being experienced at UHW that are delaying the roll-out of expanded services at the hospital. There has been no answer and nothing has been forthcoming from the Minister as yet. Our outpatient waiting list now stands at more than 50,000 people and, despite the pleas from the hospital management for additional capital resources, little to nothing has been provided by way of a solution. Will the Taoiseach direct his Minister to meet with Deputies from the south east to deliver on his party's promise to the south east and to provide the capital and personnel resources required to give us the required quality of care in the region?

There has been significant investment in the past while and particularly on the cardiac front, as the Deputy will be aware. The Government has been in office now for a year and a half and we are responding in respect of-----

We are still at 39 hours per week.

The Deputy knows a process is in place in respect of getting the new facilities in place. The tendering has happened, and all of that, and the money has been allocated. That has occurred and the Deputy knows that. There is no issue with the Minister for Health meeting with Deputies from the south east. A lot of progress has been made, however, on the cardiac front-----

We are 18 months away from promises to expand ours-----

Let the Taoiseach respond, please.

Regarding procurement issues, they have to be gone through.

What is it going to take to get the Taoiseach and his Government to act to help our people, from our elderly to our children? The paltry efforts being talked about now include the reduction of 20 cent a litre in the price of petrol, 15 cent a litre for road diesel, 2 cent a litre, which is an insult, for green diesel, the price of which has more than doubled in the past year, and nothing for home heating oil. This is an insult to the people we are supposed to represent. The Taoiseach is more beholden to Europe and to globalists than he is to serving the people of Ireland. That is quite evident in that he will not act. He has quoted European laws for VAT and everything else. How can other countries such as Poland, Sweden and Denmark bring down the cost of oil to 2018 prices, while we cannot do anything because of the high masters in Europe whom the Taoiseach must adore, along with honouring the globalists? That is what is wrong. The Government is in the pockets of the globalists and to hell with the people. Does the Government want the road hauliers to pull in on the side of the roads and to have no food delivered and the tractors to be parked in the fields not sowing or reaping? That is what is going to happen. The Government is staring this in the face and it will not look at it and will not see it. The Taoiseach should get out, meet the people and see what is going on.

The beef, milk, pharmaceuticals and technology products produced and manufactured in Tipperary are exported to every member state of the EU and all over the world.

You will not-----

Ireland depends on a global free trade environment.

The lackeys of Europe.

The Deputy should know that.

The lackeys of Europe and the globalists.

Deputy McGrath, please. Let the Taoiseach answer.

It is the same within the EU. That is the bottom line and most people with a bit of common sense know that too. We need less of that kind of rhetoric and so on.

Múinteoir scoile.

Please, Deputy. I call Deputy Pringle.

The EU has activated the temporary protection directive, which is very welcome. It allows Ukrainian citizens to access the EU and that is more than welcome. Irish people have been very forthcoming in offering accommodation, and they never let themselves down in this regard. That is very true. While the focus is on Ukrainian citizens, however, what about the other nationalities affected by the war over there? I wrote to the Minister for Justice last Monday week concerning this issue, without receiving a response. Are other nationalities covered under the remit of the temporary protection directive as well and can they access safety in the EU and Ireland?

In the first instance, we are working in concert with our European colleagues. It is an unprecedented measure to have applied the temporary protection directive in respect of all Ukrainians fleeing their country. That must be the focus now in respect of those issues. Again, there are limits too, but those issues will be explored further concerning other nationalities. It is difficult to quantify the issue right now but let us be fair all around. Some countries on the border of Ukraine, such as Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Moldova and others, have taken an extraordinary number of refugees. Balance must be applied to all of this as well. We are willing to explore the issues around that, but suffice it to say that this is an unprecedented response by Europe.

Tá costais boilscithe ag cur an-bhrú ar dhaoine ar fud na tíre, idir díosal, peitreal agus go leor eile ar nós córas iompair, feirmeoireachta, tógála, agus go háirithe daoine a bhíonn ag taisteal isteach agus amach ag obair go laethúil nó ag iarraidh an teach a théamh. Bhí an brú sin ann i bhfad roimh an gcogadh uafásach san Úcráin. Cinnte, cabhróidh an chéim atá á thógáil ag an Rialtas anois faoiseamh a thabhairt do dhaoine le cuid de sin, ach is fadhb í ar fud na hEorpa. Chonaiceamar an tslí ina raibh an Eoraip in ann seasamh le chéile ar son na hÚcráine, seasamh le chéile ó thaobh an vacsaínithe a chur ar fáil. An féidir leis an Eoraip seasamh le chéile agus céimeanna éigin a thógáil maidir leis an gcostas boilscithe agus go gcuirfeadh sé faoiseamh breise ar fáil do dhaoine atá ag iarraidh taisteal chun na hoibre nó an teach a théamh?

Is féidir leis an Eoraip teacht le chéile, agus is iontach an scéal é go bhfuil an méid sin aontas ann agus go bhfuilimid go léir ag obair le chéile maidir leis an méid atá déanta ag an Rúis ar an Úcráin. Is uafásach an scéal é go bhfuil cogadh ag an am seo agus go bhfuil a lán daoine ag fulaingt de dheasca an chogaidh seo. Caithfimid gach rud a dhéanamh ar dtús chun é sin a ísliú agus chun cabhair agus tacaíocht a thabhairt do mhuintir na hÚcráine.

Mar aon leis sin, aontaím leis an Teachta go bhfuil brú faoi leith ar mhuintir na tíre seo ó thaobh cúrsaí ola de agus praghsanna ag dul in airde lá i ndiaidh lae. Níl aon dul as. An pacáiste atá foilsithe ag an Rialtas inniu, is cabhair a bheidh ann. Is cabhair an-mhór é chomh maith an rud a rinneamar mí ó shin, iarfheistiú suas le 500,000 teach. Beidh muid ag déanamh scrúdaithe ar a lán nithe a bhaineann leis seo sna seachtainí atá le teacht.

I met the CEO of Cystic Fibrosis Ireland, CFI, this morning. He briefed me on the shocking situation evolving in Ukraine for people with cystic fibrosis. These vulnerable people are living in bomb shelters, often without water and food and with no basic medical supplies. A request has been made by CFI to the Department of Foreign Affairs for immediate financial assistance that could be channelled through CFI to other cystic fibrosis associations near the border with Ukraine.

I ask for the Taoiseach's support for that initiative. Mr. Philip Watt also asked me to raise the question of the long-promised human tissue Bill, including a commitment to introduce a soft opt-out organ donor consent. Where is the Bill and when will it be enacted in full?

I am supportive of the very poignant point raised the Deputy. It is extremely difficult for people in Ukraine because of the bombardment they are under and I can only imagine how difficult it is for people with cystic fibrosis because of the added complexities arising from their condition and the difficulties arising. Given it is a condition that is particularly prevalent in Ireland and we are involved in much research and so on in that area, I will certainly speak with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and officials to see what practical assistance we can give. I will get back to the Deputy on the legislation in the next few weeks.

I raise the issue of passports again. I know there are plans in place to address the backlog but right now thousands of people are waiting for passports. Many of our constituency offices are turning into passport offices so what immediate measures are being taken? Is there a way extra staff can be seconded into the Passport Office on a temporary basis? There are promises for two and three months from now but people are losing money right now that they can ill-afford to lose. They have paid for flight tickets but cannot use them because they have not had a passport service.

The fundamental point about passports is the exponential growth in applications and the number being issued. I will come back to the Deputy but I believe 1.7 million passports will be issued this year. There were 634,000 issued in 2021, despite Covid-19 restrictions. A total of 45% of online adult renewals are processed within one working day while 99% of online applications for renewals for children are issued within 15 working days. First-time applications take longer to process and so forth.

As of 31 January, the number of passport service staff increased by 300 from June last year, which is a very significant increase. We will bring in additional staff in the coming months to bring the number of staff to in excess of 900. This week the capacity of passport servicing in public offices increased in Dublin and Cork significantly. I take the Deputy's point but the numbers are expanding.

Energy providers are recording record profits at a time of pandemic and war and when families are being driven into poverty. Energia, SSE Airtricity and the ESB are three examples. It is reported ESB will report record profits of €679 million for 2021, up 10% on 2020. To give some perspective, the Government's cost-of-living package was €505 million.

The European Commission is very clear and it has spelt out how governments can, and should, assess and tackle excessive crisis-related windfall profits. Does the Government believe these profits at ESB and elsewhere are excessive? How is the matter being assessed? Is the Government considering introducing a windfall tax?

The first point is that ESB is a State company and is owned by the people of Ireland. Second, it is making very significant investment in projects now and for the future that will need to be financed by borrowing, and the debt already accumulated by ESB is quite significant. It needs profits to enable it to meet debt obligations and to ensure its capital expansion plans in future can be realised. One of the most important matters for us will be energy security. The question of the amount that can be returned on a dividend increase, for example, which is under consideration, will not dramatically impact the €500 million or €300 million package we have just announced. That must come from general Exchequer resources. I understand people are looking everywhere to see millions of euro here and there but we must keep our heads and focus on the energy security issue.

Is there any assessment-----

We are not going to have a conversation about it.

The energy security issue is very important given what is going on.

In light of the Russian war on the people of Ukraine, a conversation has started that was referred to on many occasions in the House in the past couple of weeks as regards our place in the world in a military sense. It relates to whether we should be militarily non-aligned or otherwise. The Taoiseach yesterday referred to the prospect of a citizens' assembly debating this subject and in light of the Commission on the Defence Forces report, which I acknowledge the Government will respond to by the summer, it is critical that we have this discussion and harness the conversations taking place across the country. Will the Taoiseach outline his proposals for the citizens' assembly referenced yesterday? What is the likely timeline for such an endeavour?

I thank the Deputy for his question. He might also have picked up on the latter part of my commentary where I indicated that our immediate focus should be on the current war in Ukraine and the humanitarian crisis flowing from it, as well as the need to direct all our policies and energies to that. I am somewhat concerned as we need a united approach in the country on how we deal with Ukraine. People have different perspectives on military neutrality and how security policy evolves, and I am simply saying that one mechanism to facilitate such a discussion would be a citizens' assembly. I do not have a timeline just yet or anything like that. I put that as a contribution to that debate to try to separate that from the immediate need to focus on the crisis in Ukraine and its impact on the European Continent. There is nothing related to our military neutrality that so far has restricted what we or Europe is doing in anything it is doing.

In the Taoiseach's meeting with US President Biden next week, I presume among the many areas for discussion will be the need to strengthen further bilateral relations between our countries. We are very glad a friend of Ireland holds the presidency. I am thinking in particular of the undocumented Irish, with best estimates indicating there may be up to 10,000 Irish people in the US who have not had their status regularised. Those people, in the main, are working, paying taxes and raising families while contributing to society. A legal framework needs to be put in place to ensure Irish people can emigrate successfully and with proper status to the US. We saw during the pandemic the difficulties that could arise when people do not have their status regularised in the country. It is very important for the issue to be very much on the agenda. The E3 visa Bill option fell at midnight when one member of Congress objected. I sincerely hope the Taoiseach can make progress on that. I hope he will raise with President Biden the need to appoint a special envoy to Northern Ireland. Distinguished persons in the past, such as Senator George Mitchell, occupied such a position.

I thank the Deputy for raising those very important matters, particularly with respect to the undocumented Irish. I will certainly raise that with President Biden. It is subject to the domestic political environment and realpolitik in US politics. I will also meet representatives of Friends of Ireland in Congress and I look forward to engaging with them on the matter. It was very unfortunate what happened to that E3 visa Bill on the last occasion. We will continue to pursue those issues.

I raise with the Taoiseach the State's response to the emerging refugee crisis in continental Europe in light of Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine that has already seen 2 million people displaced. It will be larger than anything seen since the Second World War. On the Irish response, have any efforts been made or planned to engage those already here, whether they are from Ukraine or, more pertinently, countries close to Ukraine, such as Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Moldova and Romania, to work with recently arrived refugees into Ireland and provide that pastoral practical care? To provide that, they need co-ordination, funding and support from the State. At what stage is that preparation?

Yes, efforts are being made on that front. In the initial phase, the Government was determined to give cash aid to trusted international agencies such as the Red Cross and UN agencies, and €20 million has now been allocated for humanitarian assistance. A further €10 million was allocated through the European Peace Facility in respect of non-lethal supplies to be sent to Ukraine. A pledge register has been established by the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy Roderic O'Gorman, and there has been a very strong response to it.

A lot of work will be required here. It is on a scale we have not experienced before and is in addition to what had already been a growing migration issue.

Noah Donohoe was a bright, happy 14-year-old boy with a loving mother. He went missing on 21 June 2020. Shockingly and tragically, he was found dead in a storm drain in Belfast some days later. Since then his family have been seeking answers to the circumstances surrounding his death. The PSNI has actively sought to withhold information surrounding his death and instead has put more effort into questioning and potentially prosecuting his mother for holding a memorial walk. The PSNI seeks a public interest immunity certificate. These certificates have traditionally been used by the authorities to protect the identity of an informant in a paramilitary context. More than 280,000 people have signed a petition that Noah's mam collected, calling for the files to be released. Will the Taoiseach raise this issue with the British Government to ensure the PSNI makes sure justice is achieved for Noah?

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. I am conscious of the fact it is under investigation by the PSNI. We do not have jurisdiction over the PSNI so there would be practical difficulties in what we can do here. I will reflect on what the Deputy has said and see how best we can go about raising the issue.

I want to raise the issue of the Enniscorthy flood relief scheme. It received a devastating setback from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on Friday, having failed the environmental assessment. The environmental impact was such that the scheme was refused. There are a number of elements to this scheme. I am asking that the new bridge, infrastructure and walls be allowed to proceed. On the other issue of the dredging, I ask that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, the Office of Public Works and Wexford County Council work together to try to overcome the environmental issues. I know the Taoiseach will understand the importance of the scheme and the impact flooding has had on the town of Enniscorthy over many years. This scheme has been talked about for more than 40 years. The funding was secured under the previous Government. I ask the Taoiseach to look into the issue and talk to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.

The decision was taken based on an extensive procedure under the Arterial Drainage Act and associated legislation which involved the engagement of an environmental consultant, public consultation and engagement with other relevant bodies, including the OPW, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, and the National Parks and Wildlife Service. This decision was not taken lightly. As the Deputy knows, there has been a significant increase in judicial reviews and other legal challenges to a range of infrastructure development projects arising from increased cross-cutting environmental legislation. It is in everyone's interest that the decision is made now so that the OPW can proceed to consider the matters at hand and assess options available to mitigate the environmental issues identified in the process. The key role for the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is to ensure any proposed scheme is compliant with the Arterial Drainage Act and associated legislation through independent environmental impact assessments to ensure there are no significant impacts on the environment. The OPW now needs to assess this decision and come back with proposals.

I am regularly contacted by people who have been diagnosed with cancer. The last thing they need when they get a devastating diagnosis like that is to have to fight for a medical card. Could the application process for a medical card for cancer patients be simplified? It would only be required for the duration of the treatment. Many patients also have to travel to receive treatment. In Cavan we often have to go to Dublin depending on the treatment. Because they are medically vulnerable, they do not feel like using public transport. There should be a free taxi service available to all people in these circumstances. One patient was told by a social worker in Dublin that you could only avail of supports for one session of treatment. That should not be the case. I am asking that these services be made available to everyone in the State regardless of geographical location or the number of treatments required.

Making such a provision for everybody in the State regardless of geographical location in cities and towns would be a very significant expansion, the impact of which would need to be fully researched. There are discretionary medical cards available and measures were taken in respect of a terminal cancer diagnosis. That discretion should be applied in cases that are presented to the health authorities.

We are out of time with three remaining Deputies. They have 30 seconds each.

With regard to the financial resolution before us today, I welcome the Government's intervention in terms of the reductions for excise duty on fuel. Will the Taoiseach reconsider them in the context of home heating oil? The rationale is lost on me. Is it the intention of Government that we would get into the car and put on the heating rather than heat our homes in the few short months that are left in the winter and spring?

I have the same love of the Irish language as the Taoiseach but the fact is that every day many kids in classrooms are struggling to speak and learn the language. The exemption criteria were set out in a circular in 2019. A two-year review was promised. A lot of it is still unworkable. A child has to score below the tenth percentile in an area such as comprehension, word meaning or spelling. We need to have this review and make it possible. The Irish language is very important but it is equally important we do not overburden and overstress kids who are struggling, who have difficulties with receptive or expressive language, dyslexia or any other condition that makes it difficult to receive and learn a second language.

Despite the Minister and Sport Ireland committing to tackling the serious lack of gender balance on governing boards, progress has been very slow. Will the Taoiseach consider introducing penalties or incentives to encourage national governing bodies to increase women's representation on their governing boards?

I take Deputy MacSharry's point. It is a matter of the instruments that are available to us. There is an issue with VAT. If we bring it down significantly on a temporary basis, we could end up with a much higher rate once the temporary situation is over. We have concentrated on the measures we can do within the various frameworks and legal situations. That is a cut of 20 cent and 15 cent per litre on petrol and diesel, respectively, and 2 cent per litre on marked diesel. This is on top of the last measure. About €800 million has been allocated in five weeks. It is a very serious issue for people, there is no doubt about that.

I take Deputy Crowe's point. He has experience in the field as a primary school teacher before he was elected to the House. I will talk to the Minister for Education about the points he has raised. Language should never be a burden or something people hate, particularly those who have challenging issues or learning difficulties already.

In response to Deputy Andrews, it is envisaged we would have 40% representation on sports bodies' boards of governance by the end of 2023, and measures will be considered in respect of incentivising or indeed penalising failure to reach those targets.

That concludes Questions on Promised Legislation. Between Leader's Questions and Questions on Promised Legislation we have run 40 minutes over time. That impacts on the day. It impacts on the finishing time, when we are already finishing very late in the evening. I just have to say to Members that persistent disregard of the time allowance set out not by me but by the House amounts to nothing more than disorder. I do not want to be forced into a situation where I have to regard the continuation of this disorder in a more firm way than I have to date. I appeal, please, for co-operation.