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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 27 Apr 2022

Vol. 1021 No. 2

Ceisteanna ar Pholasaí nó ar Reachtaíocht - Questions on Policy or Legislation

Today the Dáil will vote on Sinn Féin's motion to stop the ban on the sale of turf. The Taoiseach has indicated that it is his intention to vote against the motion. He will do this despite the frustration felt right across rural communities. He will do it despite the fact that he could not even convince his own backbenchers of the merits of the plan. He will do it despite the fact that people in rural Ireland, particularly older people and people on lower incomes with no alternative, will struggle badly.

I want to ask the Taoiseach again not to proceed with this and for good sense, for common sense, to prevail. This ban is the wrong move at the wrong time. It is unfair, it alienates communities and it will be unworkable. I ask the Taoiseach to do what he has not done thus far and to give an assurance that he will ditch this plan.

The motion tonight is to get rid of the carbon tax. The only way we could do the motion-----

The Taoiseach is mixed up.

The only way we could implement the motion this evening would be to get rid of the legislation that underpins the carbon tax, which provides the funding to deal with fuel poverty. We have brought the fuel allowance to well over €1,000. The motion does away with the retrofitting funds to enable people on low incomes or people generally to retrofit their houses so there would be lower bills. It does away with farming that is friendly towards the environment. It does away with the just transition. The midlands and other areas need that transition funding.

What motion is the Taoiseach talking about it?

The motion tonight.

I have read the motion.

I have read out the words in terms of the carbon tax increase and in terms of excise on fuel, which is carbon tax in another form. It is carbon tax but Sinn Féin has tried to hide that fact by using the term “excise" on home heating, which is actually carbon tax. They had it both ways. Their motion is full of duplicity but it is essentially about getting rid of the carbon tax.

Just to make the point, there is no ban on the use of turf in rural Ireland and there will be no ban for the remainder of the year.

It is in the programme for Government.

Why is there a ban in Northern Ireland on the burning of turf? In large parts of north Europe it is illegal to burn turf.

Can we do this through the Chair and keep to the time limits? I call an Teachta Ged Nash.

The future of how work in Ireland is organised is one of the greatest issues of our time and all the research shows the real appetite for working people to have a genuine right to flexibility in terms of work. Unfortunately, the Government seems determined to go back in time through its deeply flawed remote work legislation, which will essentially give employers a right to refuse requests for flexible work. The reality, as the Taoiseach knows, is that both unions and employers, for different reasons, have said the Government's plans are not worth the paper they are written on, and we agree with them. There is a right way out of this. The way out of this is to fast-track and adopt the Labour Party's right to flexible work Bill drafted by my colleague, Senator Marie Sherlock, which would enshrine a real right for workers to have flexible and secure work.

We believe workers have proven their ability to successfully work remotely during the pandemic and they must have the right to maintain flexible work arrangements into the future. Will the Taoiseach dispense with the flawed legislation that is currently before the Houses, adopt the Labour Party Bill, go back to the drawing board and ensure workers have a real right to request and have flexible work?

In this country, we are sometimes very critical of ourselves and that can be a good thing. I was struck by a recent survey that illustrated that it has worked very well in Ireland during Covid-19, even without any legislative framework, and we should acknowledge that. The experience for people who benefited from remote working is that they had higher satisfaction levels, quality of life and so on.

On the legislation, the Tánaiste has engaged with employers and unions in respect of this. Obviously, both have different perspectives and want improvements. In my view, we should continue to work with the social partners in respect of this. The purpose of the pre-legislative scrutiny was to scrutinise and strengthen the draft legislation. I do not think we need to go into another Bill. We have a legislative framework to provide clarity to all concerned. This is an evolving situation that has worked well so far without any legislation. With the legislative template now, I think we will get a better outcome.

Yesterday, a school in Wicklow made headlines after details of its relationships and sexuality education programme came to light detailing the deliberate and conscious aim to exclude and erase LGBTQI+ people and their community. To quote from a document shared with parents from that school, teachers do not cover topics such as contraception and same-sex friendships, and children who ask questions in class on content outside the designated curriculum are encouraged to discuss the issue with their parents. Last week's INTO conference heard that LGBTQI+ teachers continue to live in fear of being themselves in Catholic schools. A recent survey conducted by that organisation found that fewer than one in five LGBTQI+ teachers are "out" to staff, parents and pupils at their school.

In a modern republic, we must have relationships and sexuality education that is informed by best practice, science and healthcare, not religious dogma. We brought legislation through last year and the Taoiseach said it will come back for a Second Reading in nine months. Is that still on track or will the Government bring forward its own legislation to tackle this issue?

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue with me. Access to sexual and health education is an important right for students. I do not want to single out any particular school and I do not have the full details in regard to it. From the Government’s perspective, we are updating relationships and sexuality education and the social, personal and health education, SPHE, curriculum for primary, junior cycle and senior cycle. They are being developed by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. A revised junior cycle specification will be completed by the end of 2022, followed by updated senior cycle and primary specifications. On 19 April, the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, announced her intention to provide funding for a new postgraduate programme to upskill registered post-primary teachers teaching social, personal and health education and relationships and sexuality education. In essence, the updating and modernisation of the curriculum is the key essential there, as is the provision of continued professional development to the teachers to deliver this.

The first day of the new Dáil term was dominated by the turf wars, not an unimportant issue but, in my view, far from the most important issue in Irish society. An issue of far greater concern to my constituents is the price of rent. There was no surprise this morning when we learned the new figures from the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, with rent up 9% year on year. We do not see Ministers coming to blows on this issue. We do not see Government backbenchers raising the spectre of the fall of the Government on this issue. Why not? Perhaps it is not so surprising. There are so many landlords on the Government benches, on the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael benches, that the satisfaction levels on this issue must be quite high on the Taoiseach's side of the House.

I am beyond asking the Taoiseach to freeze rents. Freezing would maintain them at an unjust level. I am asking the Taoiseach whether he is prepared to consider legislation to cut rents and then to freeze them at reduced levels.

As the Deputy knows, we had the rent pressure zones on existing tenancies, which are effective according to the ESRI, which has done a lot of research on the application of the rent pressure zones in keeping rents down.

More than a third broke the guidelines.

The RTB relates to new tenancies. Supply is the key. What is very important is that we really get supply up, which we are doing now, with 35,000 houses from March 2021 to March this year on all streams – social, private and cost rental. That is the key to this and we are going to continue to work on getting that supply up.

I would really appreciate the Deputy’s co-operation in making sure that if developments come along, we do not oppose them all of the time, that people do not oppose them and that we allow development to happen. If we do not get supply right, it is all hot air.

This is organ donation awareness week and the life-saving need for organ donation cannot be stressed strongly enough. Organ donation and transplants were significantly reduced worldwide due to the pandemic and Ireland recorded one the most significant fall-offs in donors. Part of the reason is that the clinical staff were redeployed to help with the influx of Covid patients. Lung transplantation was the worst impacted, followed by heart and liver transplants. Kidney transplants from both living and deceased donors also fell. Lives that could have been saved were lost.

The Minister for Health has spoken in this House about switching consent for organ donation from the current opt-in system to an opt-out system. This means that people would have to indicate they do not wish to become donors following their deaths. Otherwise, if suitable, their organs could be harvested. The key factor in implementing such a system would be having trained organ donation staff in every intensive care unit, ICU. In addition, the organ donation card is outdated and needs to be reviewed and revamped.

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue. He is correct in saying that we experienced a higher decline in transplant rates compared with many European countries, due in part to the reallocation of staff and resources from the donation and transplantation system to intensive care units to aid the Covid-19 response. An additional €2.25 million has now been provided for organ donation and transplant services since 2020. That includes funding for a total of 30 whole-time equivalent staff and included in that are seven organ donation nurse managers, five advanced nurse practitioners, five theatre nurses, associate registrars, two senior house officers, two consultants and a specialist perfusionist.

The programme for Government includes legislating for an opt-out system of organ donation.

This legislation is a priority for Government and work on the drafting of the Bill is progressing in collaboration with the Office of the Attorney General and Office of the Parliamentary Counsel with a view to publication as soon as possible. The aim of that Bill is to make organ donation the norm in Ireland and that in situations where the opportunity arises, consent will be deemed unless the person has, while alive, registered a wish not to become an organ donor.

Wards of court is a very important and emotive issue. There are 2,784 wards of court, with 18,504 minors involved in the wards of court system. There is a fund of €2.2 billion. We need urgent clarification from the Minister for Justice. There are families outside the gate today. One woman's husband is in his 80s, her adult son is paraplegic and they are down to €7 of the award they got a long time ago, fadó fadó, in the courts. It is an inadequate system which does not work. The Minister for Justice needs to deal with it. We got information on the figures through the committee. There are some very tragic cases. These people get seriously injured in accidents or whatever but the costs have not been factored in. The money runs out and elderly parents are left to try to look after their very seriously sick children with no funding.

The Deputy has raised a very important point. I will revert to the Minister for Justice on it. My understanding is there is an examination of the wards of court system on the way. The Deputy has raised a legitimate point and I will come back to him on that.

Despite significant local opposition from landowners and business people and a unanimous vote from Leitrim County Council to oppose the application, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, has granted a prospecting licence for gold, silver and base metals in 47 townlands in north Leitrim. I know it is a prospecting licence and not a mining licence but it is a foot in the door for Flintridge Resources, a subsidiary of the Canadian gold mining company, Galantas Gold. We will be told, of course, that it is mining for base metals but it is a gold-mining company and it will mine for gold. We do not need it. We already have a supply of more than 500 years of gold mined globally. Can we look at the possibility of banning gold mining in Ireland? It is unnecessary, as well as being an energy-intensive, carbon-heavy process. As Coillte owns much of the 25% of land already planted in Leitrim, what will its stance be? Will it go against the local communities and allow access to its lands?

It is a prospecting licence and therefore it is not extraction at this stage. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, has to operate within the legal framework. I would like to examine the situation more deeply before making any kind of commitment in terms of banning anything in that regard and to hear the background to this and people's concerns.

As with many Deputies, a large amount of work in my office involves dealing with medical cards and people who are struggling to get a medical card approved or have a decision on appeal. As we are halfway through our budgetary year cycle, I ask that in the autumn the Government consider providing that when someone has a cancer diagnosis he or she will automatically qualify for a medical card. There must be no ifs or buts. I often have to ask individuals who are already distraught and stressed to the gills to get for additional information. They are suffering enough with cancer. It should be a bottom-line requirement that they need a medical card and that the Government would have the goodwill to give them one.

As the Deputy knows, the ongoing consistent position over the years has been income based with different categories - over-70 and below-70 - and there has been particular provision for those with a terminal illness. One concern in terms of taking a one-disease approach is the question of what about other chronic diseases. A number of Deputies have articulated on behalf of cancer patients. The Minister for Health will examine that prior to the next budget but there is then an issue in terms of parity with other chronic diseases from which people suffer. In health, there are many complexities around issues such as this.

There are 740,000 people over 65. Within eight years, it will be 1 million people. Some 50% of all hospital beds at any one time are occupied by over-65s. What review of policy will be undertaken to ensure we have an adequate number of hospital beds over the coming years? What progress is being made with regard to the elective hospital in Cork? The report on this has gone to the Minister for Health. My understanding is the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform also has to sign off on it. Here we are, still without a site identified or a timescale. Even if it was announced in the morning, the Taoiseach must accept that it will take us three years at least before a sod will be turned, unless we make a decision on this matter. What is the timeframe for the announcement and building works?

The Republic of Ireland had the highest life expectancy in the European Union 27 in 2020. We will see what impact the pandemic had. Sometimes we should reflect on that when we consistently attack the health service and so on and everything to do with health in this country. It was the highest in the EU. It is astonishing progress and an astonishing achievement.

Is the Taoiseach referring to Government Deputies?

In terms of the elective hospital, I am particularly committed to that. A hospital was announced seven or eight years ago. I have put the pressure on. The Joint Committee on Health and the Government are determined to get this elective hospital done as quickly as we possibly can. A site has been announced by the way.

It has not been announced.

What does the Taoiseach plan to do to deal with the lack of sufficient funding to deal with the backlog in housing adaptation grants every year? It is not just since Covid. It has been happening for years. There has been carryover year on year. In County Louth alone, 711 outstanding applications have been waiting for years to be dealt with, including elderly people. It is so bad that only some people in category A, the most severe cases, are being dealt with. The Government says it wants elderly people to live independently but to do that, it has to back that up with sufficient funding and deal with the backlog. Every single application, whether it is somebody who cannot access stairs or needs a wet room downstairs, represents a person with mobility and health issues. Having to wait years to get this simple adjustment to allow someone to live independently is quite shameful. What plans does the Government have? I am not talking about the funding the Government currently gives.

I ask the Taoiseach to respond. We are over time.

There are backlogs in every local authority. What plans does the Taoiseach have to increase the funding?

Can the Taoiseach tell me what plans he has to deal with those backlogs in order that people can rightly live independently without having to wait years?

The funding has increased significantly in terms of house adaptation grants.

There are backlogs.

The funding has increased. The key constraint in the future will not be funding but the inflation we are currently experiencing, the constraints on materials and building materials and their high cost because of the war in Ukraine and the inflation that happened as we emerged from Covid-19.

The backlog has been going on for years.

The Deputy must let the Taoiseach respond.

He did not respond, as usual.

The Irish Tourism Industry Confederation conference is taking place today in Croke Park. It is a great opportunity for my friends from Cork in the industry to visit the venue. That got the Taoiseach's attention. One of the issues the confederation has been pressing is the requirement for the 9% VAT rate to be retained beyond September. As the Taoiseach knows, the plan is to return to the 13.5% rate from September onwards. The inflationary impact of that will be highly detrimental to Irish tourism and hospitality. It will certainly be very difficult for many enterprises, especially in the current climate of uncertainty. I ask the Government to urgently review the situation with a view to retaining the 9% rate beyond September.

The Minister for Finance will consider all of these matters. When we make concessions in this regard we want them to be time-bound. We cannot keep doing the same thing forever. I assure the Deputy that across the full spectrum of sport in Cork, from ladies football and camogie to Gaelic football and hurling, Cork people are no strangers to Croke Park.

I have to agree with the Taoiseach. I was in Croke Park in the past couple of weeks for Cork finals. We did not have much success but we are up there often. On a more serious matter, the Taoiseach is well aware of the Grattan Street Educate Together school in Cork. There are serious concerns about road safety for the students when they go to school in the mornings.

There is a pedestrian crossing, but Cork City Council has said that it has no funding to provide a warden so students can cross the pedestrian crossing. The situation now is that cars and trucks are parked on the crossing every morning. The principal of the school contacted the council but it said it did not have the funding. I also contacted the council and the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan. He said a great deal of investment is going into transport-----

I thank the Deputy.

We have a school where it is necessary for the people involved to go out and protest on Grattan Street because the children cannot go to school safely.

I thank the Deputy. We have to finish within the time.

The Taoiseach knows the area well and it needs to be sorted.

The Deputy is over his time. I call the Taoiseach.

That is a matter for the local authority. That is why we have a city council.

It does not have the funding.

Dáil Éireann, genuinely, cannot pronounce on school wardens. We have provided funding. We have provided €360 million to local authorities for walking and cycling etc. Surely the local authority will find the funding to deal with this issue, which is a matter for it in the first instance.

There is no funding.

This time last year, the Government announced a €5 million fund to deal with littering on beaches. Unfortunately, that barely scratched the surface of the littering scourge affecting beaches around Ireland. Littering is also not the only issue. A major issue is the lack of provision of toilet facilities at beaches. The Taoiseach is very familiar with the beaches of west Cork, such as Long Strand and Barleycove, which are some of the more popular beaches and do not have toilet facilities. Furthermore, there is going to be a chronic issue with parking facilities. The days are lengthening, the sun is shining and, thankfully, people are shortly going to be flocking to the beaches of west Cork. The provision of services is lacking, however, and I would love to see a larger fund being provided to tackle issues such as the lack of parking, littering and the provision of toilet facilities. By the way, the solution to the parking issue is not necessarily the provision of extra parking spaces. It could involve directing active travel funding towards greenways and pedestrian access to beaches.

This is a spot for questions on promised legislation and policy. I ask everyone to bear that in mind. I call the Taoiseach.

I actively travel down to the beach, generally speaking. The walk and swim are part of the one solid continuum, if the Deputy understands what I mean. It is much better for you. Regarding littering, some good initiatives have been undertaken voluntarily as well. I see volunteer groups around the country that gather litter on beaches. Human behaviour is the key to this issue, but we will look at the funding issue as well. I take the Deputy’s point about parking and connecting that aspect with active travel so that investment of that type would be put in at and near beaches such as Rosscarbery, Inchydoney etc. We should put funding behind such initiatives that would encourage people to park perhaps miles back and then walk to the beach, where that is practical and feasible. I am sure Deputy Michael Healy-Rae would agree with that.

There is a serious problem with disability services in Laois-Offaly. I refer to the children’s disability network teams, CDNTs. In one area, for example, which serves Edenderry and Mountmellick, one of the teams has seven full-time vacancies. Another team has four vacancies at Riverside in Tullamore, while the highest level of full-time vacancies is in the Spraoi Centre in Portlaoise. I gather these are vacancies that have existed for some time. Children are being failed and they are not getting access to vital therapies, such as speech and language therapy and occupational therapy. I ask the Taoiseach if he could please intervene urgently in this matter. I recognise that the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is doing everything in her power, but the HSE is not collaborating. That seems to be a big issue. I appeal to the Taoiseach please to intervene as quickly as possible because children are being failed. I ask the Taoiseach please to take action to ensure we get to the bottom of this.

I will engage with the Minister of State and the HSE in respect of this. An additional €65 million was provided in 2022 for disability services, so we must now get delivery on that. Recruitment continues to be a challenge across the service, in particular in respect of therapists. This is an issue we must work with the HSE to examine further and to get speedier recruitment processes and people into posts.

In strategic leaks to the newspapers this morning, we read about sustained attacks on the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, indignation among backbenchers and indications that some of them will not support the turf measure. This is a circus, as one newspaper put it, but where is the ringmaster? This is similar to the situation in housing, where it is necessary for people in Kerry to wait for 15 years for a one- or two-bedroom house. It is also similar to the situation in health, where there are now no consultants dealing with adult psychiatric services and we are having teleconferences from Croatia.

The Government has failed to plan and failed even to have a medium-term plan. The retrofitting scheme is a joke. In the west, two thirds of households rely on home heating oil, but the Government has failed to tackle its rising cost. It has also failed to consult with the turf cutters, and those who rely on turf, before announcing the death of their livelihoods. To paraphrase a Billy Bragg song regarding another fuel, which side is the Taoiseach on and which side are his Government backbenchers on? Grandstanding, indications and indignation are not enough.

I thank the Deputy.

Does the Taoiseach know if they will support tonight’s proposed measure to help struggling families?

We do not believe in the abolition of the carbon tax, as Sinn Féin will be advocating this evening. We are not climate deniers on this side of the House, as the Deputy’s party is.


I wish to make it clear to the Deputy there is no ban on turf cutting and there will be no ban this year on turf cutting. The Deputy and everybody knows that.

Tell Eamon Ryan that.

The circus is being created by you guys over there-----


-----who are determined to create this as the biggest issue of the day, whereas in my view there are far more substantive issues, not the least of which is the war in Ukraine.


The programme for Government contains a commitment to finalise and publish the wind energy guidelines. These have been under review since 2013 - I repeat, 2013. We must protect communities such as Rathangan, Edenderry, Derrinturn and Carbury from a 50-turbine wind farm that has been proposed by Bord na Móna. If there are to be onshore wind turbines, we must have guidelines to protect family homes and our scenic areas. When will these guidelines be published? I would please like to get an answer from the Taoiseach.

The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, will have the specifics of the details regarding the timeline for the publication of those guidelines. I do not have the specific timeline for the publication of those guidelines.

A timeline for a timeline.

The review has been ongoing since 2013. When will we have these guidelines?

I thank the Deputy. I call Deputy Paul Murphy.

I raise the issue of the incredible exploitation of personal trainers by high-profile gyms. This issue was brought to light in a case taken to the Workplace Relations Committee, WRC, by a former personal trainer with FLYEfit. Another personal trainer, who works for Ben Dunne, contacted me. The situation was the same in both cases. Personal trainers have to pay about €2,500 to qualify as a personal trainer. After that, they must do 12 hours a week of free labour, which involves either cleaning duties or providing free training classes. That free labour is supposedly to make up the rent to allow people to work as personal trainers out of the gym. Therefore, these personal trainers pay for their qualifications and then they must provide free labour for the gyms to enable them to work in them. Will the Government take steps to ensure that the minimum wage legislation is applied in this area and that no free labour is expected of these personal trainers?

Again, I will have to examine the background to the issue the Deputy is raising. Are these contractual arrangements between self-employed people and these facilities? This is something we would have to examine in detail.

I do not think they are self-employed.

There are a variety of labour relations frameworks and mechanisms by which issues pertaining to pay and conditions can be dealt with and resolved, but I will need more background on that.

Is work continuing on the introduction of measures to help families make energy savings? I have listed these measures before. I refer to activating 750,000 smart meters, rolling out electric vehicle infrastructure, of which the local authorities have installed none, installing heat controls in the 1.5 million homes the retrofitting wave will not reach and extending obligations on switching to the utility companies ripping off many older and less tech-savvy consumers. These are measures that are available. Is work continuing on them? It would be very useful to see them introduced urgently.

Yes, work is continuing on those measures. Any time the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications indicates energy-saving initiatives, there seems to be a chorus of negativity around them. We need ongoing energy efficiency and this needs to be consistently worked on throughout society.

We are almost out of time. Only two speakers remain. With the co-operation of the House, I am going to take those last two speakers. I call Deputy Michael Healy Rae.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and I will be brief. Regarding the Passport Office website, it states that first-time applications will take 35 working days to process, which is seven weeks. I have continuously found, however, that passports can take much longer than this to process. Nothing is wrong with those applications and no further information is requested. The staff working on the urgent TD line are absolutely brilliant. I compliment them and thank them for their work.

In case you fall out with them.

They actually do not have access to expedite the passport unless it has gone past the estimated date. In recent days I had a lady who needed her passport for a work trip but was told they could not do anything to help her. It was a paper form standard renewal, not a first-time application. The Department needs to highlight that first-time passport applications are taking 35 days and a lot longer. Will the Taoiseach please try to do something with the Passport Office and resource it more? They are very excellent people; this is not critical of them.

The Taoiseach is aware of the great pressures on University Hospital Limerick in Limerick. There are 111 patients on trolleys this morning and there were 113 yesterday. I urge him to expedite a proactive measure. The Taoiseach is aware that a block for 96 acute beds is in the capital plan for University Hospital Limerick. UHL estates has gone to tender at this time. It is with HSE corporate, seeking approval to allow it to appoint a contractor to commence the building. It is an 18-month build. I ask the Government to support this approval by the HSE being expedited. We need to have shovels on the ground and we need to have that hospital in place. If they commence building on it straight away, we can have that block up and running by the end of 2023.

Deputy Michael Healy-Rae is correct about the extraordinary work that is now going on within the Passport Office. Passport service staff numbers have increased by more than 300 since June 2021. There is a competition under way at the moment which, when completed, will see staffing numbers of 900. That is a doubling of staff numbers since last summer. It is engaging in intensive training and so on. In excess of 400,000 passports have been issued since 1 January. That is compared with a total of 634,000 passports issued in the entire 12 months of 2021. It is experiencing a very high volume of applications. Last week the passport service reduced the processing time for first-time applications from 35 working days to 30 working days. That follows an initial reduction from 40 working days. Progress is being made but I will take what the Deputy said back to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. We are very concerned about it and conscious of it.

In response to Deputy O'Donnell, the Minister for Health is engaging with the HSE in respect of the challenges at University Hospital Limerick. We will do everything we can to progress the capital works at the hospital and in health generally.