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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 24 Mar 2022

Vol. 1020 No. 1

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Last month, in excess of 1,400 patients over the age of 75 waited for more than 24 hours in emergency departments before getting a hospital bed. That was up from 1,100 in January. This is an appalling way to treat elderly citizens of this State. In 2015, when a 100-year-old woman was left on a trolley for 24 hours, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil both said it was unacceptable. In 2018, the Minister's party leader, the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, said that people being left on hospital trolleys was indefensible. It is indefensible. It is indefensible that on this Government's watch, elderly patients in their hundreds suffer this indignity. It is especially galling when the three head honchos in the area of health are being paid the big bucks but we do not see the big results. Where is the urgency from the Government? The emergency departmental task force has not met since November. Does the Government have a plan to deal with this matter? What are the timeframes? Is it just going to allow, as it has in recent years, this indignity to elderly citizens to continue?

I want to begin by acknowledging all the work that is under way in hospitals at the moment - from nurses, doctors, consultants and all who support them in their efforts as they battle again with the impact of this disease and with all the healthcare needs that so many people have had for so long, particularly elderly citizens. We recognise how challenging this is for those who need care, but that is why the Government has done a number of things. First, it is why since 2018 the amount of funding we have put into the healthcare service has increased from €15 billion to more than €20 billion. That has allowed to happen three different things that we believe will be of help as we respond to the new challenges hospitals are facing.

First, we have thousands more staff members, all of whom are working in our hospitals. Second-----

The task force has not met since November.

-----800 new beds are now open, with a further 300 acute beds due to open.

The Government is sitting on its hands. The task force has not met for months.

Some 22.9 million hours of home care are being made available to help with those-----

There are hundreds of elderly patients lying on trolleys. Why is this not an emergency?

-----who are going to our hospitals at the moment to give them care elsewhere.

We are now eating into-----

A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, I am answering-----

With respect, the Minister is not answering the question. Hundreds of elderly patients lying on trolleys for more than a day and the Government task force has not met for months.

I call on the Deputy and the Minister to resume their seats. We are going to move on. There is one minute remaining. Those on either side can either answer or put a question, but my job is to watch the time in order that other Deputies also have an opportunity to contribute. I am moving on to Deputy Cairns of the Social Democrats.

Last month, it was announced that the Dursey Island cable car service will be paused from 1 April for essential repairs. That was a considerable shock to the island's residents, to locals who farm on the island and to the local tourism sector, as the cable car is a significant attraction on the Beara Peninsula. The issue is the absence of a replacement service with the closure of the cable car next Friday. We need a publicly funded alternative service but no one is taking responsibility. The Minister for Rural and Community Development informed me that Cork County Council is responsible for any replacement. On Monday, however, Cork county councillors were informed that it is the Department’s responsibility. The only option for residents and landowners is to use private boats on a dangerous stretch of water. Some people obviously do not have private boats. There was a clear need for this to be financed and for a Minister to intervene. I would appreciate any comments from the Minister on this issue.

I thank Deputy Cairns very much for raising this issue. I am aware how important the issue of access is for the constituents the Deputy represents. I will contact the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who is involved with this issue to see if any further help can be given. I know that his Department is aware of this and is trying to help. Equally, however, I know that some of the proposals that had been brought forward by it and the actions so far have not had the effect the Deputy wants. I will raise the issue with the Minister to see if I can provide further information to the Deputy during the day, or even during this session of questions to me.

I thank the Minister very much.

As the Minister is aware, we believe that he should use the powers he has under the Consumer Protection Act to control the price of fuel, energy and so on. He has turned his face against that. However, there is one measure I would ask him to consider. Given that he has rightly given €100 per week to hauliers as an emergency payment to compensate for the rising cost of fuel because they depend on it to sustain their businesses, will he do the same for taxi drivers? Some 22,000 taxi drivers who were hammered during the period of Covid are again facing a massive hit in terms of the cost of fuel in order to sustain their businesses. Will the Minister consider extending the €100 a week emergency payment to taxi drivers?

I genuinely acknowledge the interest of Deputy Boyd Barrett in raising matters on the taxi sector for so long, particularly during the pandemic, and I know that they have had a very hard time. I cannot give the Deputy the commitment he is looking for. The reason we brought in the particular measure referred to was because of the impact that would have resulted from the haulage sector not being able to move goods around the country. The Minister for Transport will look at whether other measures are possible to help that sector in any way, but I am afraid I cannot give the Deputy the commitment that he is seeking.

While I am on my feet, on the matter raised by Deputy Cairns, the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, has been in contact with Cork County Council and has made clear that her Department is available to help in any way. We are awaiting the proposal from the county council on the particular matter that the Deputy raised.

This is Ireland’s first Neurodiversity Celebration Week. Its purpose is to celebrate and raise awareness of the different ways those who are neurodiverse experience and interact with the world around them. Neurodiverse conditions include autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia, to name just a few. With the growing waiting list to access supports, we are clearly not doing enough to support those who are neurodiverse. In Roscommon and Galway there are more than 500 children waiting for physiotherapy appointments. In January, more than 1,000 children across the two counties were awaiting initial speech and language therapy assessments and nearly 500 waiting occupational therapy assessments. This is simply not good enough. We have to do better. Parents are being left with no option but to seek services privately, if they are lucky enough to have the have the resources to do so or to be able to source them. What about families who cannot access such interventions? They are at the mercy of ever-growing waiting lists.

I am sure the Deputy is aware that the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is doing major work in this area and will be bringing forward an autism innovation strategy to respond to the diversity that the Deputy has outlined there, particularly among younger children. The issue the Deputy has raised on waiting lists is the reason the Government has made a significant commitment to try to increase the number of people working within our health services at the moment, especially in the areas of therapy. More than €5 billion in additional funding has been made available to the Department of Health in recent years. I know the Department is working hard to recruit the therapists who, as the Deputy knows, are badly needed and who could make a very big difference to those who access their services and need their care.

Following last night’s “RTÉ Investigates” programme, I again raise issues of transparency, as I have done on numerous previous occasions in the period from 2017 until now, regarding the funding announced in the context of the rural regeneration and development fund and other funds administered by the Department Rural and Community Development. In late 2019, three projects worth €6.8 million in total were announced for County Mayo while the whole of County Cork received €2.6 million. All of that money went in total to north-west Cork, while west Cork got nothing despite the fact that it had a shovel-ready project in the pipeline in the same year. Can the Minister assure me that funding under the rural regeneration and development fund was approved on the basis of the merits of the projects that were put forward and that no political influence was involved? What investigations will be carried out by the Government in respect of the funding irregularities exposed by the “RTÉ Investigates” programme last night?

I thank the Deputy very much for raising this matter. Much of the material that was used in the “RTÉ Investigates” programme last night is made available through the Local Government Audit Service. Some of the issues covered last night were based on findings that have come out from the audits of local government. To answer the Deputy’s question on how transparency in general is being delivered, this happens through the very audits which revealed some of the cases that were covered last night. I assure the Deputy that decisions on the funding of projects through the rural regeneration and development fund are, of course, made on the basis of the merits of the projects.

Hospitals are coming under major pressure because of the number of Covid-19 patients in hospital beds. There were 1,395 such patients yesterday. That figure is up 29% in the past seven days. There are 55 patients ICU, up from 44 a week ago. Yesterday, 22,000 positive polymerase chain reaction, PCR, and antigen tests were registered. Anne O’Connor, chief operations officer with the HSE, has stated that 5,200 staff are absent due to Covid and that the number of teams available in hospitals is falling and that elective surgeries are being cancelled.

We need to look at the whole question of wearing masks again on travel on public transport, in retail shops, etc. We also need to consider a return to mandatory mask-wearing. There does not seem to be anybody directing the Government at the moment in the context of public health measures. I ask the Minister to seriously consider this suggestion. Many people in the Chamber should also consider wearing masks and respect others.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. We are well aware of the impact that the increasing number of Covid cases is having on hospitals that were already extremely busy. We are also aware of the impact the virus is having on the health of many at the moment.

At all times in the Government's response to the huge challenge of the pandemic we were guided by public health advice. We were always informed by the input we received from public health experts. As Deputies know, the Government still reserved its right to make decisions based on a variety of factors. We have not received advice to change the guidance relating to the wearing of masks in the settings referred to by the Deputy, but were we to get that advice we would act on it. We will continue to be guided by the advice that comes from the public health experts on the wearing of masks.

Who is giving the Government the advice? Is it the Chief Medical Officer?

This morning, unfortunately, I was not selected to speak to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, about the Passport Office. I have to raise it today because I have received several telephone calls about the telephone lines not being answered, the live chat and the emergency number and whether it is 24 hours. I am dealing with a case and I feel very sorry for the man concerned. On Tuesday, his wife and daughter flew out for a holiday, but he could not fly out because of his daughter's passport. The Passport Office needed further information. My understanding is that it is being processed at Balbriggan at present. However, because the office requested further information, the application has gone right back down in the system. We cannot have a system that is failing, and that system is a failure. I welcome the fact that the Minister, Deputy Coveney, said this morning, as he always says, that the office has extra staff. I do not blame the staff. They are put to the pin of their collar. It is the system. It reminds me of a planning application. If somebody applies for planning and leaves something out, the application goes back down to the end again. In this case, all the details of the flight have been sent in. The office knows the child is flying out on a date, but all of a sudden the case is back to the end of the system. It is not acceptable.

While I am on my feet, I extend to the Deputy and all her colleagues in Fianna Fáil condolences on the passing of Dr. Dermot Fitzpatrick, an avuncular gentleman and an exemplary public servant. I know his loss will be felt among his colleagues in Fianna Fáil.

On the issue relating to passports, God knows, a holiday is a very precious thing at present. We really know the value of being able to leave the country and travel elsewhere now. For constituents to find themselves unable to do it at the last moment due to a passport difficulty, we all know and are dealing with the difficulties that creates. The Minister for Foreign Affairs is doing all he can to put additional staff in place to respond to the issues the Deputy has raised and to look at how we can make more efficient use of IT in dealing with these issues. If it has not already been done, we can look at the particular matter the Deputy raised and see if we can help further. In general, we are very aware of how challenging this is.

I was relieved to read the letter from the British ambassador in The Irish Times this morning restating his government's commitment to the Good Friday Agreement, and to hear the comments by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that the British Government had no intention of introducing border checks in this country. However, this runs counter to the clear statement in the Nationality and Borders Bill in Westminster. Amendments that would provide for an electronic system for travel authorisation, ESTA, style agreement for non-Irish citizens seeking to cross the Border were rejected by the House of Commons. This is something that impacts on every facet of life, not just in the Border region but across the country. What efforts are being made by the Government to continue to impress on the British Government its absolute commitments? The fact is that if we are going back to the days of being promised technological solutions, the British Government needs to go back and read the Good Friday Agreement properly.

I thank the Deputy for raising such an important matter for our island. The Minister for Foreign Affairs has commented on the announcement Deputy Richmond has raised. The Government and all Deputies in this House will continue to be very clear about the sanctity of the Good Friday Agreement and the need for it to be protected in all aspects. The Government and the European Union have been very clear about what will not happen on the Border and what will not happen for those who are moving to and from Northern Ireland. We are all united on that point.

There are 700,000 people living in Ireland with neurological conditions. Of these, 9,000 people are living with multiple sclerosis, MS. I am one of the 9,000, having been diagnosed 15 years ago. I and our health spokesperson, Deputy Cullinane, met MS Ireland recently and it has a vision to maximise physiotherapy treatment through a national physiotherapy service across all nine community healthcare organisations, CHOs. Its research shows that delaying and reducing disability due to MS could reduce costs to the health system annually by €19 million. This would be for a relatively low investment. MS Ireland has written to the Minister for Health and would welcome the opportunity to engage in a national level planning discussion with his Department. Does the Minister for Finance believe that the €880,000 this would cost would be value for money? Will he ask his colleague, the Minister for Health, if he will engage with MS Ireland?

In general, the Deputy makes a very important point that in spending money on preventing further health difficulties, every cent of it is always well spent. I am sure the Minister for Health is aware of the issue the Deputy raised and I am sure a meeting can be set up, if not with the Minister then his senior officials, to respond to the group that is raising this important matter. I will talk to the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, about it.

I wish to raise again the crisis in the dental treatment purchase scheme and the fact that people with medical cards have not been able to access a dentist for over 12 months. It is almost 15 months at this stage. Patients with diabetes and patients with cancer are all denied access to basic dental treatment. The Irish Dental Association met with the HSE on 2 March to try to get a resolution to this. The HSE has not rescheduled a meeting until June, which is a full three months away. Given that so many people across the State are being denied access to dental treatment and that schoolchildren are not being screened in first class and sixth class, where is the sense of urgency and what pressure has the Government put on the HSE to deal with this, in view of the length of time it has been going on and the fact that people are being denied access to dental care?

It is not a matter of the Government putting pressure on the HSE. The HSE will be well aware of the importance of dental care and, in particular, the importance of young girls and boys getting the help and support they need early in life to look after their teeth and their dental needs. I will follow up to see why no further engagement is planned, as the Deputy has just suggested. I understood engagement and work were under way on this issue, and I will raise it with the Minister for Health.

The loss of Pádraig Ó Céidigh as chairperson of the board of the Shannon Group is very disappointing news. His appointment last year was warmly welcomed by the mid-west and western region. Mr. Ó Céidigh rolled up his sleeves and in a post-pandemic world we have seen transatlantic services restored and the restoration of the vital hub at Heathrow. Ryanair services have multiplied. Indeed, there are 108 services this summer from Shannon. He has done a wonderful job. It is going to be hard to replace somebody of the calibre of Pádraig Ó Céidigh as chairperson. Prior to a new recruitment campaign starting, I ask that an analysis be undertaken to establish the reasons he has stood down as chairperson. That analysis must be looked at, considered and acted on before a new recruitment process is started.

The Deputy's support of, and work for, Shannon Airport and the Shannon Group are well known to me and to all in the Shannon Group and in the airport. Like the Deputy, I acknowledge the massive progress the airport has made after a very difficult 2020 and 2021, with services and transatlantic access very positive news. Of course, for any group to lose a person of the calibre of Mr. Ó Céidigh is a regret. It is a pity he is not going to be in a position to continue with that work on behalf of the Shannon Group. I understand that the reason he made the decision was the amount of time he needed to put into the role and it not being consistent with all the other commitments he has currently. Yes, of course we will look at what is the proper specification of this role. The Department of Transport along with the Public Appointments Service will work hard to try to get a person of similar calibre to Mr. Ó Céidigh.

I preface my remarks by thanking the Minister for his kind words regarding an t-iar-Theachta Dála agus an t-iar-Sheanadóir Dermot Fitzpatrick.

The thoughts of those of us in Fianna Fáil and throughout the House will be with his family, in particular his daughter Senator Mary Fitzpatrick. I imagine in the Upper House there will be plenty of time to talk about the doc and pay tribute to him.

I spent this morning in Trinity Comprehensive School meeting children from Ukraine who travelled here and the children of Ballymun and the schools that have welcomed them. I cannot tell the Minister the impact it had on me. It was heartbreaking listening to the stories they recounted. Our communities have a lot on their plate at present but they want to welcome these people and they want to be generous. I ask the Government to make sure sufficient resources are in place, that teams are in place on a regional basis to support schools and that we look to see how the qualifications of Ukrainian teachers coming to Ireland may be accredited.

I should have acknowledged Senator Fitzpatrick also. I know she has been inspired by the service her late father gave.

We cannot but be moved when we spend time with those arriving to our country and fleeing their homes. We cannot but be moved by all they have gone through and be reminded of the commitments we will have to them in future. With regard to the particular point made by the Deputy on how we could support those who were teachers in Ukraine and bring them back to their vocation here in Ireland and help them, this is a matter the Department of Education is working on. The Teaching Council is making arrangements to look at how we can speedily register teachers from Ukraine to get them back into classrooms here in Ireland, fulfilling their vocation. The dedicated email address has been set up. We encourage anybody who is interested in this to make use of the email address.

The N2-A5 road project is an essential piece of infrastructure not only for County Monaghan but for the entire central Border region and the north-west region. It has been long promised and has been included in several national development plans. It has been part of a series of engagements in peace process negotiations. Unfortunately, funding for the next phase of the project has been removed and placed in the pet projects of the Minister, Deputy Ryan. This region has no public transport infrastructure. There are no active transport options. I want the assurance of the Minister for Finance that he and his colleagues in Cabinet will ensure the decision to withdraw funding for the next phase of this project is reversed and that the project is able to proceed as quickly as possible.

I am not aware of the Government's commitment to the A5 project being in any way diminished or changed. I will of course follow up on any development that may have prompted the Deputy's question. I am aware as a former Minister with responsible for transport of the particular status of the road and how important it is to the communities the Deputy has referred to. I am sure some of the Deputy's colleagues are probably lambasting the Minister, Deputy Ryan, for not delivering the so-called "pet projects" more quickly. We will certainly follow up on where we are with the A5. The Government is well aware of the importance of that road.

With respect to third country nationals coming into Ireland, and God knows we have a lot of people coming in at present through no fault of their own and not as their first choice, there seems to be a problem with respect to people registering here as pharmacists. We passed the Pharmacy Act 2007 which put in place a third country route of registration. There seems to be an ongoing problem with the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland which is charged with implementing this. It has been going on for quite a number of years. Will the Minister make inquiries with respect to this to see whether it can be rectified? It is a serious matter. We certainly need pharmacists here. They want to work in the industry and in pharmacy shops and retail outlets. Will the Minister come back to me on how he gets on?

I need hardly tell the Deputy there is no silver lining in this awful cloud and the dark skies we are all confronting together. The Deputy's point and question is a reminder of the skills and expertise that will be coming to our country with people leaving their homes for reasons we all know are appalling and have to be condemned at every moment. I am also well aware of the need that we have for trained pharmacists and how important they are for our health services, particularly outside of our cities. I cannot give the Deputy a specific answer on the issue he has raised but I will follow up on it with the Minister for Health and I will ensure the Deputy gets an answer.

I read today in the media that Revolut will launch deposit accounts for Irish customers. There is a lot of change in the banking sector at present. In light of this and the impending departure of Ulster Bank and KBC from the Irish market, I would be obliged if the Minister would give us a status update on the review being undertaken into the retail banking sector, particularly as we head into potentially more uncertain economic times with potential implications for interest rates.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The review is reasonably well advanced. In a few months' time we will organise a public stakeholder event to which we will invite all who have views regarding the development of our banking sector, whether it be the digital providers to which the Deputy has referred or, for example, Sparkassen and the community banking needs that have been debated for so long. We will invite them all to a public event and seminar to hear their views and integrate them into the work we are doing.

The Deputy is right that huge change is under way in our banking sector in Ireland. It is also worth making the point that despite the changes to which the Deputy has correctly referred, our financial services sector and our banking sector have certainly emerged from the previous economic crisis of Covid having performed well. They avoided an escalation of non-performing loans and an escalation of those in mortgage distress. The Deputy is correct that huge change is under way. I will let interested Deputies know about the event. It would be great to give them the opportunity to participate.

Yesterday I attended a protest at the Department of Justice for a woman. She and her husband have three children, one of whom was born in this country. She lived eight years in direct provision. She is from Pakistan and has just completed her degree in early childhood education. She has a deportation order hanging over her head. As somebody who believes in a world sans frontières for people who are desperate, I am delighted with what we are doing for the Ukrainian people. However, it is hypocrisy to be deporting a family where we have educated them and where they have been living under our system, albeit in direct provision. We have a talented woman who is willing and wants to work in our education service being pushed out of the country. Will the Minister look to have the deportation order for Mehwish Saqib revoked?

As the Minister well knows, inflation has proved to be an enemy of our small and open economy many times in the past but the threat is increasing in Ireland and at EU level. Will the Minister use his considerable influence at European level to ensure the effects of inflation are minimised and that inflation which is not so readily attributable is challenged?

I thank Deputies Durkan and Smith for raising these issues. I know Deputy Smith is raising this matter for all the right reasons but equally she knows I cannot give an update on the status of any individual deportation issue or anybody whose status is being considered in our country at present. I am sure the Department of Justice is aware of the issue she is raising given the protest to which she referenced. I will also make sure the Minister for Justice is aware the Deputy has raised this issue with me and we will see if we can provide a direct answer.

To respond to Deputy Durkan, the challenge of inflation we are facing at present is something more than what Ireland can respond to on its own. We need to look at how collectively in the European Union we can address the root causes of this issue. This is why a summit is taking place at present looking at the issues of energy independence and the affordability of energy. These issues are most effectively dealt with at a European level. I hope some ideas and proposals will emerge from it that will allow us to make progress on the issue to which the Deputy has referred.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar fionraí ar 1.20 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 1.56 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 1.20 p.m. and resumed at 1.56 p.m.