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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 22 Mar 2022

Vol. 1019 No. 6

An tOrd Gnó (Atógáil) - Order of Business (Resumed)

Roadbridge, one of Ireland's largest construction firms, has gone into receivership. It is devastating news for the company's workers and subcontractors. Roadbridge could owe at least €40 million to subcontractors and suppliers. I know of one small company that is owed €155,000, despite Roadbridge having been paid for the work, which included taxpayers' money. These particular owners, like many others I am sure, have invested everything in their business and are now left high and dry. They may not survive this blow.

Furthermore, Roadbridge has contracts for a number of crucial public projects that are now delayed. We need a comprehensive response from the Government, especially since Roadbridge might not be the only company in trouble. As the Tánaiste knows, we are facing massive inflationary pressure in the construction sector. Is the Government examining this matter to establish whether other public projects might be in jeopardy?

As I understand it, this is a liquidation. Our main focus in the past week or two has been trying to make sure that the workers affected had their redundancy rights protected. That has been done. On subcontractors getting paid, the Deputy will be very aware that when companies fail, unfortunately, sometimes suppliers and subcontractors do not get paid in full but they do get paid in part. That will all depend on how much money is left at the end of the liquidation.

We are working to ensure that important public projects for which Roadbridge has contracts can continue. My colleague, Deputy O'Donnell, has been very active on this, as has Deputy O'Dea. These contracts particularly relate to a 38-home housing project in Moyross and Southill in Limerick, the Coonagh to Knockalisheen road in Moyross and the N5 Ballaghaderreen to Scramoge road. Work is being done to make sure those projects continue.

There are 660 people on trolleys in hospitals throughout our country, with 1,338 people in hospital suffering from Covid of whom 61 are in intensive care, which is up by 24 in the past ten days. Will the Tánaiste support the calls of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, for an emergency to be declared in our hospital system? Will the Government look at measures, including the curtailment of non-emergency elective surgery and other Covid mitigation measures, such as increasing mask-wearing in crowded settings?

I think a national emergency in relation to hospitals was declared about 20 or 30 years ago. I do not think it would provide a solution in itself but I absolutely acknowledge that our hospitals are under enormous pressure at the moment. It is not only because of Covid. There is also the bank holiday effect and there is also deferred demand. We would expect the numbers awaiting admission to fall tomorrow and the day after. It may well be necessary for hospital groups to listen to the INMO's call and restrict non-elective activity for the next couple of days or weeks in order to reduce the level of over-crowding now being experienced.

The message from the Government on wearing masks is very much in line with public health advice. It is advised on public transport, in healthcare settings and also crowded indoor spaces. We do not propose to make it a criminal offence again not to do so.

As the rental crisis deepens there are reports that some landlords have attempted to exploit vulnerable renters by demanding sex in lieu of rent. One young woman who has been propositioned three times in the last couple of months while she was trying to find somewhere safe to live told the Irish Examiner that trying to find somewhere to rent in Dublin is like falling into a dangerous hell. In the last week there have been reports of individuals trying to exploit Ukrainian women with demands of sex in lieu of rent. This is absolutely despicable and utterly unacceptable. Will the Government support the Social Democrats Bill on this which will be debated at Second Stage tomorrow? Will it support its speedy passage through the Oireachtas? What other measures will the Government take to address the power imbalance between landlords and tenants?

The Cabinet decided this morning to support the Bill. It is good legislation. The Minister for Justice will be happy to support it on behalf of the Government. It may be that the practice is already illegal given that the purchase of sex is illegal in Ireland and there are very clear laws around consent. Perhaps if this provides additional clarity there is something to be gained from it and we will support the Bill on that basis.

Healthcare workers put themselves on the front line for all of us during the two years, and more, of the pandemic. They are now overrun again. There are record numbers on hospital trolleys and further surges in Covid. On 19 January the Tánaiste proposed that €1,000 would be given to each healthcare worker. This week, I had several representations from healthcare workers to say that it still has not been paid and that the Government is essentially proposing an unsustainable model which the representatives of the healthcare workers does not feel is acceptable. I believe there was a meeting yesterday. Will the Tánaiste update us? As one healthcare worker pointed out, other healthcare workers in Europe received reward payments 18 months ago yet 18 months on our healthcare workers still have not received the €1,000 reward payment that the Tánaiste promised them.

I am not familiar with the outcome of any meeting that occurred yesterday. However, the Government is very keen to make this payment to front line and essential workers who were exposed to Covid during the pandemic period. Negotiations and consultations are still underway with unions. We want to make that payment as soon as possible and in the next few weeks if we can.

The Government's policy of excluding commercial bus operators from the 20% reduction in public transport fares and from the youth travel card scheme is having a detrimental impact on the sector. If you live in an urban area you will get a 20% discount on your bus fares and use your youth travel card. If you do not live on a Bus Éireann route you will pay full fares. Rural passengers are being penalised in their pocket which is adding to their cost of living crisis. It is wrong, unreasonable, inequitable and unfair. School transport providers stated last week that increased fuel costs have made their businesses unviable. They cannot guarantee the continued provision of school transport up to June. Further disruption to schools must be avoided. Will the Government consider a temporary VAT reduction for transport operators similar to that introduced for the hospitality sector?

My understanding in relation to bus and public transport services is that if they are PSO services, Government subsidised services, in urban and rural areas that can apply, but where they are commercial services in urban and rural areas and not funded by the State, then it cannot apply and there is no way for us to do that unfortunately.

VAT is obviously a matter for the Minister for Finance. I will ask him to contact the Deputy directly.

I raise intervention services and early intervention for children with additional needs such as speech and language therapy etc. Before Covid, many people in my constituency experienced delays of 13 or 14 months. That has now gone up to 37 months. That is three years. This is appalling. Children with additional needs are waiting for assessment in many cases and then waiting for services and their parents are told we do not have any speech and language therapists. Speech and language therapists tell us they cannot get jobs in the sector. Something is rotten in here and it is discrimination, appalling discrimination. Some families have had to go to court to get this rectified. It needs to be dealt with. It is just not acceptable to leave children with special educational needs to languish like this. They fall behind and regress. They need to be respected as well as every other child in the system.

I agree the time parents must wait for an assessment of needs for their kids is far too long. I understand there had been some improvements in the last couple of months rather than a deterioration but I will ask the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, to come back to the Deputy directly on it.

Last week Letterkenny University Hospital saw a significant increase in Covid-19-positive attendances and admissions. There were 84 patients with Covid-19 being treated in the hospital last Wednesday and 11 wards were affected by Covid-19 outbreaks. This will no doubt increase even more following the bank holiday weekend just gone. The INMO has called for the HSE to declare the current overcrowding in hospitals as an emergency situation until Easter at the earliest and I echo this call. It is obvious there is a link between mask-wearing and the reduced transmission of Covid-19. Removing the requirement to wear a mask is clearly having a detrimental effect on our hospitals and this must be addressed as well. Will the Tánaiste's Government declare the current overcrowding in the hospitals is an emergency situation and will he do all he can to address the pressures our healthcare workers are under and ensure day surgeries can continue?

According to the HSE, there were 490 patients on trolleys awaiting admission this morning but it is anticipated the majority of those will be in a bed by this evening. Nonetheless, it is a figure that is very high. There are a number of factors contributing to it; it is not just about Covid.

On mask-wearing, the advice from Government and the CMO is very clear, namely, we encourage people to wear masks on public transport, in healthcare settings and also in other crowded indoor settings. However, this sub-lineage of Omicron is very infectious. It is probably 30% more infectious than the previous Omicron variant and for that reason we are expecting to see an increase in cases over the coming weeks. The good news is that Denmark, which was the country to first experience this Omicron-plus sub-lineage is now seeing cases falling very substantially. We expect that to happen here in a few weeks time.

As a consequence of the appointment of a receiver to a company called Roadbridge, work has ceased on a number of vital projects on the north side of Limerick. I ask the Tánaiste for a commitment that those projects will be completed and that work will recommence as soon as possible. The specific projects I have in mind are the northern distributor road and the Peter McVerry Trust housing project in Moyross.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. My colleague, Deputy O'Donnell, has been very active on this in the last few weeks. On the housing project in Moyross, I understand Roadbridge was involved in a project to build 38 homes in Moyross and Southill. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage will assist the trust to ensure these houses are completed as soon as possible. I understand 14 are currently complete or almost complete and can be finished by the summer. The remaining 24 were due to be built in a second and third phase but these will probably have to be retendered now, which will cause a delay, but we will ensure that is minimised.

On the Coonagh to Knockalisheen road, the scheme has been underway for about a year. The local authority is examining what options are available. If it has to be retendered then it will be and that will lead to a delay but we will try to ensure that delay is minimised as well.

On the same issue, the Tánaiste will appreciate that there has been major fallout in Limerick. Roadbridge employs 630 people and has been synonymous with Limerick for more than 40 years. A receiver was appointed last Friday, so the company is not in liquidation; it is in receivership. I acknowledge the work done by the Tánaiste, his Department and the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, on expediting the roll-out of supports for the workers and allowing them to take up other jobs without compromising their statutory redundancies, which is significant.

I have asked for discussions to take place between the receiver and the council on the Coonagh-Knockalisheen road. I ask that the Government stand behind whatever is required to ensure that this project can progress. There are approximately 18 months left in the project, which is only 30% complete.

Regarding the Peter McVerry Trust, 14 units are done. I have spoken to the trust and it is looking to retender in respect of the remaining 24. Will the Government provide the trust supports? The key thing I want-----

The fallout for small suppliers and subcontractors is considerable.

Please, Deputy. Your time is up.

Will the Government continue supporting whatever is required in this situation?

The Deputy is absolutely right. The company is in receivership, not liquidation. I may have said the latter earlier, so I am happy to correct the record.

I acknowledge the Deputy's engagement with my office last week and the previous week, particularly in the context of ensuring that the workers were able to take up new employment without losing their redundancy rights. I assure the Deputy that central government will work closely with the Peter McVerry Trust and the local authorities to ensure that anything that needs to be retendered for in the road and housing projects will be retendered for quickly, that we will get these projects back on track and that any delay will be minimised.

On Sunday, a 77-year-old man in a serious condition was taken from his home in north Donegal by ambulance to Letterkenny University Hospital. He spent more than nine hours in the ambulance waiting to be attended to. The Tánaiste will agree that this was utterly unacceptable.

We have a profound crisis in our health system across Donegal from NoWDOC to primary care and from community hospitals to our acute hospital in Letterkenny. It has been neglected for far too long. Will the Tánaiste ask the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to go to Donegal urgently, which we have called for repeatedly, meet the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, other unions and staff on the front line, and do everything he can to address this crisis in solidarity with the doctors, nurses and paramedics who are working in conditions that are utterly unacceptable?

I agree that a delay of that nature is not acceptable. I do not know the details, but I hope that the person affected is doing okay and the delay did not impact adversely on his health. The Minister for Health is not in the Dáil today but I will let him know that the issue was raised and ask him to contact the Deputy directly.

I wish to discuss the Future of Media Commission and the publication of its report. As the Tánaiste knows, the report was completed approximately six months ago. Speaking as Chair of the Oireachtas committee with responsibility for this area, our committee is hamstrung without the report's publication. Tomorrow, we will welcome the chair designate of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, Ms Mary Curtis, to our committee. That authority is going to be subsumed into the new commission.

I have two questions. The elephant in the room is the question of how our media will be funded, particularly the national broadcaster, RTÉ. When will the report be published? I am seeking a timeline in this regard. Will the Tánaiste share his views on how we are going to fund the national broadcaster into the future?

I am afraid I cannot give the Deputy a timeline for publication, but we intend to publish it soon. It was done before Christmas and party leaders and senior Ministers have it and have been briefed on it, so it would be appropriate that the committee should see it soon. The big dilemma is what to do with the TV licence and what model might work best. We need to think that through. I hear the Deputy, though, in that it should not have taken us this long to get the report published. We will try to get that done in the next couple of weeks.

On page 25 of the programme for Government there are promises to:

- Review the policy framework within which Credit Unions operate.

- Enable and support the Credit Union movement to grow.

- Support Credit Unions in the expansion of services, to encourage community development.

What progress has been made to ensure that our credit unions, which stuck with rural Ireland while the commercial banks abandoned it, are being supported?

I met with all of the representatives of the credit union organisations earlier this month and we have agreed a series of proposals in respect of the amending legislation that they are looking for. I encourage credit unions - as, I am sure, everybody else in this House would do - to avail of the opportunity presented by the closure of so many bank branches and the fact that some banks leaving the country to offer financial services to people in their communities who need them and use this as a way of growing the credit union movement.

The Tánaiste will be aware that fuel costs have skyrocketed over the past number of weeks. He will also be aware of the major financial challenges for hauliers, the road transport sector and, in the context of agricultural diesel, farmers, albeit this morning the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, announced an incentive of €400 per ha for additional crop production. Can the Tánaiste provide an update on the possibility of a fuel rebate scheme for hauliers and others in the road transport sector and indicate whether anything can be done in respect of agricultural diesel? In light of the financial pressures relating to the increase in the price of fertiliser and so on, there is massive pressure on farmers specifically in the context of tractor diesel. If the Government could do something to alleviate that cost, it would be very welcome.

I thank the Deputy. We have spoken a number of times about the impact of high fuel prices on hauliers and road transport operators and also on the agricultural sector. I will ask the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, to come back to the Deputy with a little more detail, but in regard to the fuel rebate for hauliers, we are providing a grant of €100 per truck in addition to the fuel rebate. In addition, a week or so ago we reduced the excise on green diesel and marked gas oil by about 2 cent per litre. Again, I will ask the Minister for Finance to engage with the Deputy on that in a little bit more detail.

On the same issue, with the massive increase in the cost of fertiliser, agricultural contractors are facing an awful dilemma. At this point, the only support the Government has provided to the farmers and fishermen of Ireland is 2 cent by way of the rebate scheme that was announced. Any day of the week one now has to put €650 worth of agricultural diesel into a tractor that will be mowing or going hard all day. It is impossible for these contractors to say that they are going to be able to provide a service to the farmers - their customers - this year. It is a matter of absolute urgency that the Government looks at this. We need our farmers to produce. First, we need them to be able to have silage and, second, hay has to be grown and saved for us to have our food produce. We desperately need the Government to support the fact that agricultural diesel is so expensive now.

I thank the Deputy. As a Government, we acknowledge the massive increase in input costs for farmers and how that is affecting their bottom line. A few weeks ago, we announced funding for pig farmers as part of a scheme to help that sector. As the Deputy will know, we have had a pro rata reduction in the cost of green diesel. Today, the Government made a decision to incentivise farmers to grow more grain by way of a €10 million tillage incentive scheme that will encourage them to grow more barley, oats and wheat. A payment of €400 per ha is proposed. We anticipate that we could have up to 25,000 additional ha under tillage as a result. There is also a €1.2 million fund for protein crops, including peas, beans and lupins, which will provide a guaranteed payment of €300 per ha. As well as that, an additional €1 million is being provided to the multi-species sward scheme, again to assist and encourage farmers to grow.

The actions of P&O Ferries last week highlighted the brutality of capitalism, with 800 workers sacked by video call, special handcuff trained security sent in to clear them off the ships and the company hiring new workers on wages as low as $2.38 per hour. This is part of a wider race to the bottom. The RMT union has reported that workers on the Dublin-Liverpool route were on a basic rate of $3.47 per hour.

Companies like this are little better than pirates on the sea, flying whatever flag of convenience they need in order to avoid respecting workers' rights. We must draw a line in the sand, push back against the race to the bottom, push for a publicly owned transport system that provides connectivity and engage in boycotts, mass protests, blockades and solidarity strikes to force the companies in question to rehire these workers. Will the Government support workers taking action like that?

What is the Government's position on the €1,000 pandemic payment for healthcare workers? It is reported that some healthcare front-line workers received as little as €200. Reports also indicate that the HSE is not complying with what was announced by the Government and the Department because the reward is being paid on a pro rata basis. Will the Tánaiste specify if the condition of a pro rata payment was agreed by the Government? Will the Tánaiste confirm when the payments will be made?

With regard to Deputy Paul Murphy's comments, what P&O Ferries has done to its staff is appalling. I am glad that those who are employed under Irish law could not be treated in this way and have not been. I understand that some Irish seafarers who are based in other jurisdictions are affected. What P&O Ferries has done is wrong. I understand that the UK Government is examining this to see if what the company has done is legal. There may well be a legal remedy to this. I note that the union concerned, RMT, backed Brexit and is now calling for the nationalisation of shipping lines. It is a pity that those workers are represented by a union that really is not acting in their interests and is not doing them any favours, but they should not be punished for that. What has happened is wrong and the UK Government really should do what is necessary to intervene.

The bonus for healthcare workers and other Covid pandemic workers is a payment of €1,000 for people who worked full time for that period. It is pro rata for those who did not work for the entire period. The detail of that is being worked out. We want to get that resolved as soon as possible in order that the payment can be made.

If I may, and I beg the Ceann Comhairle's indulgence, I will mention two bereavements. The first relates to the passing of Mr. Jim Kelly, one of Ireland's most senior diplomats at the United Nations. I have been asked by the Taoiseach to say that Mr. Kelly passed away suddenly in recent days. I extend my condolences to his family, his friends and his colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs, for many of whom he was a father figure. We certainly regret his loss.

In my capacity as the president of the Oireachtas rugby club, I acknowledge the sudden and tragic death of Mr. David Hill, who died on the field of play at the weekend. That was quite a shock to everyone. I extend my condolences to the Scottish Parliament and to Mr. Hill's family, friends and colleagues. My thanks to the IRFU, St. Vincent's Hospital and others who kicked in and helped out after the tragedy occurred.

I thank the Tánaiste for raising those two important bereavements. Ar dheis Dé go raibh an bheirt acu.