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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 23 Mar 2022

Vol. 1019 No. 7

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

The British Government is pushing forward with the requirement for EU citizens who are not Irish or British to apply for travel clearance if they want to travel North to South or vice versa. This is a disgraceful situation. It undermines the Good Friday Agreement and the common travel area. It creates significant restrictions on freedom across our island. I do not know whether the Minister believes that it is acceptable but I find it wholly unacceptable that, for example, a Polish person who lives and works in Lifford, County Donegal would need papers to travel to Strabane, or from Emyvale to Aughnacloy. The Minister knows this is the reality for so many people who live in our Border region.

It will be absolutely devastating for the tourism sector. All of us know that when visitors come, from the United States of America, for example, they travel right across the island. Should President Biden pay a visit to Ireland, we could be faced with the bizarre situation whereby he and his party are required to register for permission to travel across the island. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, has been in touch with Boris Johnson on this but the Taoiseach needs to intervene strongly with Boris Johnson to call this out. We need to mobilise diplomatically across the world to put a halt to this disgraceful action.

The Government stands foursquare behind the common travel area and the open Border in all respects. We do not in any way support or endorse the decision that was taken in the House of Commons. We have serious concerns about the proposal for an electronic travel authorisation system. We do not believe it is either practical or fair to seek to distinguish between EU citizens from other member states and Irish citizens going across the Border. There is a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference later today and the issue will again be raised directly with the British Government. I assure the Deputy that we will be taking this up with the British Government at the highest level because we do not support this and we do not believe it is acceptable.

Questions have been repeatedly raised in this House about the expulsion of the Russian ambassador and the large size of the Russian Embassy staff here, which numbers more than 30. Today, the Polish intelligence services have asked their foreign ministry to consider expelling 45 Russian diplomats, some of whom have allegedly been working for Moscow's secret services under the cover of diplomatic work. Last week, the Baltic nations expelled ten Russian diplomats, declaring them persona non grata. Lithuania expelled four and Latvia and Estonia expelled three each. Bulgaria has expelled ten diplomats and the Slovakian ambassador told the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs this morning that his Government has also expelled staff from the Russian Embassy there. With Russia continuing to commit war crimes and atrocities, the original view was that we had to act in consort. It looks now like we will be at the end of the queue of nations taking action. Is it the Government's intention to take action against the Russian staff in the embassy here?

As the Deputy has recognised, the position of the Government has been that we will act in consort with our European partners. Ideally, that should be done in a co-ordinated manner. This issue may well be discussed at the European Council meeting over the next couple of days. We have previously expressed our concern at the extent of the diplomatic presence in the Russian Embassy in Dublin. I will ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs to revert to the Deputy with the latest position on the matter.

Considering the high rate of Covid and the impact it is having on our communities and our hospital capacity, I ask the Minister to indicate a clear timeframe for the roll-out of the fourth vaccine jab, particularly for those who are most vulnerable. When will older people and vulnerable individuals be able to get their fourth vaccination? Anyone who has had this particular dose of the virus, myself included, will know it is not mild. It is quite debilitating and we need to protect those people as soon as possible.

We are concerned about the significant increase in the incidence of Covid in the last couple of weeks. It is a reminder to all of us that Covid is still very much around. Personally, I have not known more people with Covid at any point in the last two years than at this point in time. We all need to reflect on the current situation and ensure we do all we can individually to reduce the risk of transmission. The Government is acting in line with the advice of the National Immunisation Advisory Committee, NIAC, when it comes to the roll-out of additional doses of the vaccine, the fourth dose in particular for those who are immunocompromised and we await NIAC advice for other cohorts.

Yesterday, we were told, "It is a matter for the Business Committee" and that we should use our Private Members' time. Three times yesterday the question of the new national maternity hospital and the intentions of the Government were raised and these were the answers given. We were told it was a matter for the Business Committee to decide if we have a discussion on it, or that we should use our Private Members' time. Private Members' time has been used to discuss the new national maternity hospital and I disagree completely that it is just a matter for the Business Committee. We complain all the time that there are not enough women involved in politics. Here is a political issue that involves all women and girls, that is, the future of the new national maternity hospital, and we cannot get a proper debate on it or full information on what the Government intends to do. Does it intend to do the unthinkable and hand over the control of a national maternity hospital that will cost the State and the taxpayer at least €1 billion to the religious Sisters of Charity and a private company under St. Vincent's Holdings? We need answers to these questions. This is hugely important and involves half the population. It does not necessarily involve the men in suits who are negotiating it but it does involve the women and girls concerned.

I assure the Deputy that there is no intention to hand over the control of the new national maternity hospital to any religious body or any third party. There are lots of opportunities in the House, including oral questions to the Minister for Health, which I understand are taking place next week. The House has already decided on the business for this week but there are many avenues open to the Deputy to continue to raise the issue The substantive point is that what the Deputy is inferring or suggesting is not Government policy and is not what is going to happen.

Then let us have a full discussion on it.

As the Minister is aware, the Defence Forces representative associations have been locked out of national wage talks for decades now. It is one of the reasons our troops are the most poorly paid public servants in the country. The Commission on the Defence Forces reported in January and has recommended to the Government that associate membership of ICTU be provided to both PDFORRA and RACO. I am mindful that the next round of national wage talks will begin in May. Has the Government taken any decisions on this regard? If not, are we likely to get a decision before these wage talks commence in a few months?

I thank Deputy Berry for raising this issue, which is primarily a matter for the Department of Defence. I acknowledge what the Commission on the Defence Forces has said on it. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform does not, in principle, have any objection to the affiliation of PDFORRA and RACO to ICTU. I will discuss the issue with the Minister for Defence. I understand the Deputy's point about the next round of public pay talks, the date of which is not confirmed, and that these organisations will want to be part of that process.

I ask the Minister to do something meaningful. He said the Government was doing a lot for the cost of oil. I am asking the Government to abolish the carbon tax on agricultural diesel for farm contractors, forestry contractors and farmers. Otherwise, we will not have a harvest and we will not have silage. The Minister's colleague beside him, Deputy Heydon, knows about this intimately. I ask that this be done for a period of five years at least. This is a wartime situation, as the Minister referred to himself, but this was coming down the tracks anyway ever before that. I also ask the Government to ring-fence over 200 million litres of agricultural diesel for the harvesting of silage, corn and all the crops it is talking about planting. We also need it for ordinary farm work and forestry work that has to be carried out because we have a shortage of timber already. Are we going to have a shortage of everything? If this is not managed properly, there will be chaos. I am asking for a period of five years. Tell the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to cop onto himself because this is a wartime situation. His little dreams and plans are not working. They are crippling farmers and contractors and we have to deal with this meaningfully.

We accept that no part of Irish society is immune to the effects of what is happening internationally. That includes our farm families and the contractors on whom farmers rely to do so much of the work on farms. There is a form of rebate for giving some of the carbon tax back to farmers but I would make the broader point that the carbon tax we collect is ring-fenced. It does not go into the general Exchequer. It is paid back by way of-----

So you are not going to do anything for them.

-----fuel poverty measures, retrofitting, new agri-environmental schemes in the Common Agricultural Policy.

I call Deputy Fitzmaurice.

I want to bring in Deputy Ring on the theme I brought up on Leaders' Questions regarding legislation.

I have two questions for the Minister. The former Senator Feargal Quinn brought legislation to the Seanad a number of years ago on subcontractors. Has the Government any proposals to bring that Bill to the Dáil in order to protect subcontractors? Major contracts now have to be given to major companies with major turnover, so all the small contractors have been left out and cannot apply for these big jobs.

The Minister has seen what happens when there are big contractors like Roadbridge involved. Almost €11 million is owed to people in Mayo, including small family businesses. When these companies set up operations, we expected that they would create jobs, not take them away from County Mayo. My heart goes out to these families. They have worked for 40 years to build up their businesses and a major multinational like this came in and took their business away from them. I want to put that on the record of the Dáil and give a warning to Dublin, British and Northern Ireland companies to think about Shell to Sea. If these people are not paid they will not be operating in north Mayo or in any other part of the county.

The strength of feeling on this issue is heard loud and clear. The Construction Contracts Act 2013 does not cut across the normal rules for company liquidation or receivership. Where this arises, the route for recovery is through the normal insolvency process. In respect of any public works, there is an open and competitive procurement requirement, both domestically and under EU law. It is best not to go into the specifics of the individual case. I ask for the parties involved to talk to each other and engage in order to see if we can find a solution to the issue raised by the Deputies.

A further ten Deputies are offering. We are going to have to be quick.

The St. Patrick’s Day festivities last week kick-started the tourism and hospitality season for many operators. They have had a torrid time over the past two years. Hopefully this will be a good year. There are many pressures on them, particularly those relating to inflation and staffing shortages. The return of the higher rate of VAT is looming in the distance. In the context of the inflationary situation we are in and the difficulties the industry faces, can we make an early decision on keeping the 9% rate of VAT beyond September? It would add fuel to the inflationary fire if we revert to the 13.5% rate in September.

I accept that operators in the tourism space are under pressure. They are hoping to see a significant return of international visitors over the course of this year. We expect to see that happen. The legal position is that the lower rate of VAT will be increased in September, but the Government will keep the situation under review and will confirm its position in due course.

There are various commitments in the programme for Government on land use. For example, there is a commitment to the effect that:

Within 24 months, we will evaluate the potential for contributions towards our climate ambition from land-use improvements and set in train the development of a land-use plan, based on its findings.

There is also a commitment to:

A national land use review, including farmland, forests, and peatlands, so that optimal land use options inform all relevant government decisions.

There is a further commitment to:

Publish a National Soils Strategy that will assess all appropriate soil health parameters and will inform future policies on good soil-management practices.

We have issues around land use coming into sharp focus in terms of the potential fodder crisis resulting from the conflict in Ukraine and the stark recommendations on land use in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. I am also aware of the European Commission regulation on nature restoration coming down the tracks. Where stands the work on our land-use plan?

The Deputy raised a number of issues about land use, which is central to farming, rural Ireland, biodiversity, protection of the environment and the future of energy. The Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Senator Hackett, is leading a substantive body of work on behalf of the Government on the land-use strategy. I will ask her to revert to the Deputy directly.

I also wish to raise the extremely serious situation with Roadbridge. What is happening will have massive consequences for jobs and the future of many subcontractors and suppliers across the country. I call on the Government to step in and provide support to subcontractors caught up in the wreckage of a major company collapse. There are particular concerns with regard to the impact on the many Mayo-based subcontractors and suppliers that are worried about their futures. I am specifically talking about engineering firms, road firms and construction quarry firms, many of which are based in the west of Ireland. Bonds and insurance policies that are in place on these projects should be used to pay subcontractors and suppliers. In order to protect the taxpayer, there is also an urgent need to ensure the delivery of publicly financed projects to benefit Mayo, including the N5 Scramoge to Ballaghaderreen road project and the Oweninny wind project. I call on the Minister to provide clarity on the matter.

As I mentioned earlier, while the Construction Contracts Act 2013 is not directly relevant in the case of liquidation or receivership, it imposes minimum payment requirements and provides the necessary tools to enforce those payments between the main contractor and the subcontractors and so on down the supply chain. We are carrying out an assessment of all of the public works contracts that Roadbridge was a party to. The Government remains committed to those road projects and to other non-road projects and will ensure that arrangements are put in place in order that they can be reinstated and completed in due course.

I welcome the €100 emergency support payment that has been announced for licensed hauliers. It is a help and it will go some small way towards assisting hauliers. Those transporting livestock are exempt from having haulage licences. They should be included in the scheme. Since this payment was announced, a number of bus operators in Roscommon and Galway have been in touch to seek similar support. A recent survey by the Coach Tourism and Transport Council of Ireland found that 95% of all school transport bus operators have said they will not be commercially viable to make it to June without Government support. Will the Government look at including bus operators in the context of the €100 payment that has been announced?

I accept that the substantial increases in fuel prices we have seen are impacting groups other than hauliers. The Deputy mentioned bus operators and along with them taxi drivers and other groups across society are also being directly impacted. The measure the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, brought forward was specific to hauliers because of the vital role they play in our economy and in ensuring we can continue to trade and provide goods throughout the supply chain. I will ask the Minister to examine the issue the Deputy has raised about other groups.

This morning we woke up to good news in Cork; that a new special school is to be temporarily established in Rochestown and that the school sites in St. Killian’s Special School, Mayfield and Carrigaline Community Special School will be extended. This is great news for special education provision in Cork in the Minister’s constituency and in my constituency, respectively. In light of the decision two weeks ago on the standard operating procedure, SOP, assessment being undertaken by the HSE, can the Minister tell me what the Government is likely to do in terms of the validity of the SOP assessment of education rules?

That is welcome news for Cork. Dublin was part of that announcement as well. I acknowledge the Deputy’s work and advocacy in respect of special needs provision in schools in the Cork area over a prolonged period. I note the recent court decision on the SOP and I will ask the Minister for Education to revert to the Deputy directly with a specific update on that.

On foot of the actions of the British Government at Westminster, we could be looking at an unworkable hard border for those who are not British or Irish. That could include Polish people living in my town of Dundalk who want to travel to Newry because they would have to fill out electronic travel authorisations. While this says a great deal about the nonsense about security uttered by the British Government following our response to the Ukrainian crisis, it says more about the politics of Brexit and racism and where matters in Britain stand. That is a matter for another day. We need the Irish Government and our international partners to stand firm and say that this is not acceptable. We cannot rely on the likes of Ireland’s Future, which is holding another public event in Dundalk, to prepare for a new Ireland. We need the State to stand up and we need a citizens’ assembly or a much-expanded shared island dialogue because we need action to be taken. Irish unity is the only way to go in respect of this matter.

We need a resolution to this issue. It is completely impractical to seek to implement this decision of the House of Commons. The Bill has not yet been finalised. We should be clear on that point. It will continue to be considered at Westminster.

The Government will use every avenue available to it to make the case that an exception needs to be made, in effect for people on the island of Ireland, whether they are Irish or are from any other part of the world. From a practical point of view in the context of tourism and so on, it just does not make sense.

Given the extraordinary number of Covid cases in the past week and the statement by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation calling for the reintroduction of mask-wearing in crowded settings to ease the pressure on our public health service, will the Government review the decision it made earlier this month on ending the mandate of mask-wearing in public settings, namely, in retail outlets and on public transport?

I reiterate that we are concerned about the current trend with Covid. I would make the point, however, that the anchor of Government policy on this issue in the past two years has been the public health advice. The decisions taken a number of weeks ago were made in line with the specific public health advice that we received. We have not received any new advice to make any change to the current position in respect of mask-wearing.

The Government abolished NPHET.

It falls to individuals to make a decision for themselves and to carry out their own risk assessment as to what they think is appropriate. At this point, the Government has not received any public health advice that is contrary to what it received previously.

As we know, people around Ireland have shown a huge amount of empathy and generosity when it comes to embracing and supporting the Ukrainians fleeing from Russia's war. More than 20,000 offers of accommodation have already been made through the Irish Red Cross. I understand that 4,000 of those are for own-door facilities. I have received many questions from people who are eager to help. They have already pledged rooms and are wondering what the next steps are. I have also had offers of employment from businesses and free crèche places from childcare providers. They are wondering what is the best way to channel their offers of assistance. It is important that we match up, as quickly as possible, the offers of help, support, and accommodation to the families and individuals travelling here who desperately need that support.

I agree that the response of the Irish people has been remarkable, although it comes as no surprise to anyone in this House. Work is under way to contact those who made offers of accommodation through the portal, with an initial focus on the vacant properties where own-door accommodation can be provided. The welfare issues that arise in that circumstance are less than where someone has to share a home with somebody else. That issue is being progressed as we speak. We are open to any other offers of support or assistance, be they made directly to the Red Cross or to the Government.

We are very grateful in this House for the efforts of our front-line healthcare workers during the pandemic. They put themselves in danger and went above and beyond what was expected. The Government recently agreed to pay a €1,000 bonus to front-line workers in recognition of their extraordinary efforts. However, following recent media reports about the payment structure being considered, many part-time nurses have been in contact with me. They are worried that the proposed payment structure will see their bonus reduced to just €200. Everyone across the House recognises the need to be prudent with public money, but there is also a need to be fair and do right by people. Will the Minister engage with his colleagues and ask that a generous approach be taken, one that recognises the sacrifice made by all front-line healthcare workers, whether full time or part time?

I want to say on behalf of the Government that we are anxious that this payment be made as quickly as possible. There was a meeting on Monday this week involving the health sector trade union group as well as the HSE and the Department of Health. A number of issues were discussed there, some of which the Deputy touched on. There will be a further meeting today. We are very anxious to bring this to finality. It was always going to be difficult when one gets into the nitty-gritty detail of the matter. The principle is very good. It is about giving recognition to people who were on the front line and went above and beyond the call of duty. Those knotty issues of detail need to be resolved and I know the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, is keen to proceed as quickly as possible. Hopefully, there will be further progress at today's meeting.

Next Sunday, the postmasters will hold an emergency meeting to consider balloting on industrial action because they have reached a tipping point with regard to payments, for example, their fit-for-purpose payment agreed in their contract of 2018, their Christmas payments of 2021, and payments for additional work due to the money laundering directive that was agreed nearly a year ago. There is more and more work but payments have not been forthcoming. Also, an interdepartmental group was set up one year ago to examine the feasibility of directing more Government business to the post office network. It is urgent that its report is published in order to ensure the viability of the post office network and decent incomes for postmasters. Will the Minister say when that report will be published?

I assure Deputy Harkin that this issue is being worked on. We are aware of the fact that the existing transformation payments are due to expire at the end of this year. I am familiar with the previous report that Grant Thornton brought forward about the need for additional support in certain circumstances. The Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, is leading the work on the future of the post office network. She has been working closely with the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, about the provision of services and will bring forward that report and proposals shortly.

Very worrying reports have been circulating in my community to the effect that the Department of Social Protection branch office in Castlepollard, County Westmeath, which serves Castlepollard, Oldcastle, Delvin, Collinstown, Coole, Castletown, Finea, Lismacaffrey and Street is possibly in danger of closure. As the Minister can imagine, this has caused extreme concern in the large rural hinterland served by this branch office. This is an area largely not serviced by public transport. If the Department's services were to be located elsewhere, it would case a lot of hardship. Will the Minister give an undertaking that this branch office will be kept open and that the full range of Department of Social Protection services currently on office will continue to be provided? I have written to the Minister for Social Protection on this matter. It would be greatly appreciated if assurances could be given to the local communities and the employees involved. We should not continue to keep taking the heart out of rural Ireland and its people by closing branch offices such as this.

I am not familiar with the details of that case, I will be honest, but I do appreciate the importance of local social welfare and Intreo offices in communities throughout the country. The Deputy said that he has raised this with the Minister, so I will leave it with her to come back to him directly.

I want to come back again to Roadbridge and reiterate that there is no way we are going to we will stand idly by in Mayo or in Erris and watch intergenerational contractors and suppliers who have been there for years, through thick and thin, being pushed to one side. I know the Minister is asking for stakeholders to engage. I specifically ask him to, please, step in on the issue of Bord na Móna and ESB to do everything possible. I want to know whether the bonds can be used. I also want to ask the Minister about the wider situation and what the Government is doing to measure the extent of the problem of construction inflation across the State. How many more companies that are operating in the construction sector are at risk of going into receivership or liquidation? How many more subcontractors and suppliers are in jeopardy? What action is the Government taking to scope out the problem and mitigate against other situations like this?

I acknowledge Deputy Conway-Walsh’s personal interest in this issue. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, will come back to her directly on this matter. I am not familiar with the granular detail of this case or the position in respect of bonds or matters of that nature. It is important that there is engagement and discussion on the issue, and I know the Minister will also want to ensure that happens.

I am very much alert to the wider issue the Deputy raised about construction price inflation. Late last year, we introduced some changes and additional flexibilities to take account of the fact that many contractors are facing increased costs. It is an issue about which I continue to work with the Office of Government Procurement in regard to public works contracts. We have a dual obligation of getting value for money for taxpayers and ensuring that projects get done and that contractors are not put into an impossible position. We are trying to marry those key objectives.