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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 28 Apr 2022

Vol. 1021 No. 3

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

Before we proceed, I wish to point out that if the Members first up, that is, the leaders of the groups, take more than the allocated one minute per person, they are taking time from the people at the end of the list. I ask everyone, please, to adhere to the one-minute allowance. I call Deputy Doherty.

There has been widespread outrage at the actions of the Sea-Fisheries Protection Agency, SFPA, in Killybegs over recent weeks. These actions have cost the local fishing community a huge amount of income and many workers have lost their livelihoods. It has forced some fishing vessels to turn away from Killybegs, never to return, and others have turned fish for human consumption into fish meal. Two fishing vessels were forced to land in Derry and then to have their catch transported to Killybegs for processing. If that was not bad enough, the SFPA has now removed in-factory weighing permits from the two fish factories in Killybegs on the basis "the SFPA remains of the view that the landing took place outside of Ireland". Does the Minister regard Derry as being outside of Ireland? Is he going to allow the SFPA to put a hard border on the island of Ireland and punish our fishermen and fish producers for daring to challenge this madness and trying to earn a livelihood for themselves?

I can confirm that on 31 March, the SFPA sought to undertake an inspection, which would include supervising the weighing before transport, of a fishing vessel at Killybegs Harbour. Such weighings are required by the interim EU control plan, as approved by the European Commission. The SFPA confirms that the master of the vessel and the operator objected to the process for weighing upon landing, as set out in the interim EU control plan. The master and the operator were offered the use of an industry-owned water separator, which would preserve the quality of the fish during the process. They opted not to avail of this and, subsequently, the master of the vessel chose to leave the port. The SFPA has notified the relevant regulatory authority of the EU member state in which this vessel is flagged of this interaction. Since then, two further vessels on which the SFPA sought to conduct a supervised weighing in Killybegs Harbour departed the harbour without landing the fish on board. A formal control plan to enable the derogation of weighing of fishery products after transport in Ireland was submitted to the European Commission in March of this year.

Time is up, Minister.

Unless the Commission approves this plan, the derogation that allows for weighing after transport will cease. This will involve landings being weighed on the pierside until a control plan is in place.

I thank the Minister. We have to finish.

That is the detail I have in response to the concerns raised.

I call Deputy Bacik.

Why can the Government not do more to help renters? There have been serious rises in the cost of renting in Ireland. Average monthly rents stand at €1,415 and at €2,000 in Dublin. That is an unaffordable chunk of take-home pay for many renters. The issue is lack of regulation and lack of supply. We in the Labour Party previously brought forward a Bill to restrict the use of companies like Airbnb for short-term lets. We are asking the Government to take more urgent action to ensure such short-term lets will not outstrip the supply of long-term lets. Research and analysis by my colleague Senator Rebecca Moynihan has shown that, at a given time in March in nearly every county in Ireland, there were more properties advertised for short-term rental on Airbnb and other sites than on for long-term rental. In a total of 11 counties, local authorities took no action against this practice of short-term rentals last year. We need greater supply and we need renters to get a break.

I read that article. Deputy Bacik and Senator Moynihan are absolutely right to be concerned. Our constituency in particular is at the very epicentre of the rental crisis. It is an issue for the whole country. With regard to Airbnb and the issue of short-term rentals, there is real cause for concern if local authorities are not pursuing it. However, we have to be slightly careful because the measures that were introduced in the Housing for All strategy, which is the best way to address the rental crisis, apply those restrictions or requirements on local authorities in counties where rent pressure zones apply. We have to be careful because many of the counties that have been mentioned are not in rent pressure zones and therefore I imagine the local authority would say it was not required to do anything. The underlying need for regulation is clear and strong. In Housing for All, it was agreed that my colleagues, the Minister, Deputy Martin, would develop with Fáilte Ireland a further innovation-----

Time is up, please.

-----in the form of a registry system so people involved in such short-term letting would have to be registered. That will be a big help.

Problems are faced by renters in every part of the country. However, I want to ask the Minister about investing in public transport to encourage more people to use it as part of our response to climate change. Is the Minister aware that Irish Rail is advancing proposals that will remove direct train services from part of the DART network? If this plan goes ahead, direct rail services to Dublin city centre will be taken away from a significant number of commuters on Dublin's northside. Journey times will also be increased for these commuters. This makes no sense at all at a time when we should be improving public transport to encourage more use to help meet our climate change targets. Is the Minister aware of these plans? Does he support them? What is his view on them? Will he, as Minister for Transport, source funding to improve rail infrastructure and capacity so direct services are not removed from commuters and so journey times are not increased?

Every part of the country is important. I just meant that Dublin Bay South happens to be the area with the highest rents. No area is immune to this rent crisis.

Dún Laoghaire is higher.

Similarly, we need commuter rail in Limerick, and we will build it and deliver it. We need commuter rail in Cork. We will build it. Going back to what Deputy Shanahan said earlier, we need to move the railway station in Waterford up the north quays so we can build housing there. It is the same in Galway. We need a twin track from Oranmore.

Metropolitan rail is important, as it is in Dublin. We have gone to planning and are now rolling out the DART+ West scheme, which will be the first part of the extension, expansion and massive increase in DART services.

Will the Minister answer my question?

I will. We have already invested in new carriages and new DART trains, which will be deployed on the existing network and which will result in an increase on the northern DART line straight away next year when they come in.

Can the Minister answer my question?

I am not aware of the scheduling issue the Deputy referenced.

It is not scheduling.

If he could send me the details-----

The Minister is responsible for transport. He should be aware of this.

I do not know the details. I ask the Deputy to send me the details.

I thank the Minister. Time is up.

This Government is going to expand and increase the DART capacity in Dublin, as we will with metropolitan rail in other cities.

I was contacted by a local catering company in my area which says it has been informed that, without any tendering process, Aramark has been given all the contracts to provide catering to the refugee hubs for Ukrainians. This company is pretty disgusted about that. As the Minister will know, Aramark has been a very controversial company It has been criticised for the poor quality of its catering in US prisons and for the poor quality of some of the catering it provides people in the abhorrent direct provision system. There were protests by artists and workers at the National Gallery about it getting the contract for the café in the National Gallery, which is right here beside us. It was recently caught up in unofficial strike action because it did not give redundancy terms to catering workers in the old Bank of Ireland site. Is it true this company, a US multinational, has just been given all the contracts for catering for Ukrainian refugees?

We are dealing with a crisis this country has never had to experience before, and we are dealing with it in a way that ensures every Ukrainian who comes to this country seeking shelter and security can be given it. That has meant we have not been able to use the traditional procurement processes. We have had to short-circuit processes to ensure-----

So local caterers are cut out of it completely. That is bad.

-----people get fed and get shelter. If we did not do that and had long delays, I have no doubt the Deputy and others would be condemning the Government, and they would be right to do so. We have had to move quickly.

Local caterers can get better quality food.

We have moved quickly. That is why 16,000 people are being sheltered and fed.

It is not good and it is not fair.

This morning I received a copy of an electricity bill from a constituent, a pensioner living on her own. Her bill has gone from €123 to €3,385 because her bills have been estimated for the past 24 months.

To add to her shock, she is being charged all of these arrears at the current electricity rate, compounding the financial hardship she is now facing. In the meantime, the electricity supplier gains excessive profits due to this inflated unit rate. The only obligation placed on suppliers is that they must attempt to take a meter reading four times a year.

After that, the onus to submit a reading is thrust back on the customer after a banal card is thrown into the letter box. In the UK, under the back billing rules, an electricity supplier cannot send a bill for energy used more than 12 months previously. What plans are there to do the same here?

It is a real concern throughout the country, but that is a shocking case. It is beyond belief that someone could have such an increase in a bill. The energy security framework plan the Government published two weeks ago contains a series of immediate emergency actions we are asking the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, and supply companies to do to manage this very difficult situation, so that customers who get into difficulty for whatever reason do not see an impossible situation with which they cannot cope with or manage. It obliges supply companies to engage, make sure they are not disconnecting people and that they actually manage and help people through the bills process. That customer needs to contact his or her supplier, as well as the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, or other support agencies to make sure that the situation is resolved and he or she is not left exposed. The Government has given clear direction. CRU, the independent regulator, recognises the problem and is giving clear direction to supply companies about how to manage such inappropriate situations.

The Minister should read the meters.

The licensed hauliers emergency support scheme, LHESS, is badly needed. I thank the Minister for rolling it out and for supporting the haulage industry, which needs it so badly. Like any scheme, there will be anomalies. Livestock hauliers are trying to be included in the scheme. Under the law, they are exempt from having a haulage operator's licence for their business. As a result, they are unable to apply for the LHESS. Many hauliers in Tipperary and all over the country are registered with the Department of Transport and hold a professional competence certificate in road haulage transport, but they cannot apply for this scheme because of the exemption. Companies are employed directly as contractors for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the marts throughout the country. They are a vital link in our food chain. Livestock haulage companies are fully tax compliant, hold a current C2 certificate and are registered with the Road Safety Authority, RSA. Like all haulage companies, they face the same costs. Will the Minister try to meet with this group to include it? It is a good scheme but it needs to be tweaked to bring in these important players.

I appreciate the Deputy recognising that it is a good scheme. It was designed to be delivered quickly and to help hauliers through a difficult period. It does not cover every haulier, which we were clear about from the start. It is for licensed hauliers. We have done that for a variety of reasons. It has always been the way that we have been able to intervene and provide support where the licensing system has given us a mechanism to control, monitor, implement and introduce a scheme. If we had gone beyond that, it would have been impossible for us to deliver the scheme, which we needed to do in a timely manner. Hauliers outside that licence range will not be able to avail of the scheme. If we delayed it and broadened it, those licensed hauliers would not be able to get the funding when it was needed.

They are working for the Departments.

Baineann mo cheist le heaspa seirbhísí faoisimh ar an talamh i nGaillimh agus fulaingt na gcúramóirí dá bharr. I am delighted the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is here. Perhaps "delighted" is not the right word. I am once again obliged to raise the absence of respite services in Galway. I hope I do not get an answer about the hundreds of thousands of hours being provided. I acknowledge that, but what is happening here in Galway might be different from the rest of the country. A message from one person says that like many people in the west, they are exhausted after struggling for 18 months, day and night, without a break. People are not complaining. They are simply asking for the right to respite services, which have been done away with, with Covid being used as an excuse. Will the Minister of State address that issue and take a hands-on approach? I realise she has been rebuffed on many occasions when she has taken a hands-on approach.

There is no doubt there was a vacuum in disability services. We are reinstating respite services for adults and children. The question is really about respite for older people. I do not have an answer for the Deputy. I will ask the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, to provide an answer later. I spoke to her last night about home care support in Galway and how many were on a waiting list for home care support. She told me 51 people are awaiting home care support. I will address the respite issue with the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, later.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, for her ongoing engagement with me on the state of autism assessment and delivery of services in my area, in community healthcare organisation, CHO, 6, which I identify as a problematic area. I give the example of a young boy, Dillon McGee, who has very complex needs. His parents asked me to raise his case. There is inconsistency of services. He does not have access to child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, because of where he lives. His mother has been told to turn up at Crumlin to get medication when his behaviour gets out of control. There is inconsistency with respite services. Children in Churchtown can get services in Greystones, but he cannot get services in Blackrock while being in Blackrock. He cannot get the bus from Leopardstown to Twigs because it will not go that little bit further, but a child from Swords is getting it. I am raising the complete inconsistency between CHO areas and what is being delivered. It is not being delivered in the way it needs to be in CHO 6, so the Minister of State and I keep having this engagement and she keeps raising this with the HSE. I beseech the Minister of State to help me to deal with the inconsistency in my own area to get the services.

I saw the correspondence again this week and I am assured a meeting will be set up with Deputies Carroll MacNeill, Devlin, the family and the HSE to resolve this. We need consistency and a standard operating procedure for all, regardless of where in the country they live. We need access to universal care, which is the same in Galway as it would be in the Deputy's area. That will be addressed.

This week, yet another large apartment development in my constituency was found to have significant defects. It is the third development in Dublin South-Central in recent months. Owners face remediation costs of upwards of €30,000 per apartment. Residents must cover this imminently so that the management company can maintain the insurance of the buildings. These people cannot wait for the report of the working group or for the scheme to open. They must part with large sums of money now and hope the Government will reimburse them in the future. Will the Government commit to supporting owners financially and retrospectively through tax measures or direct expenditure for building defects arising from a history of lax regulation?

As the Deputy knows, the programme for Government has commitments in this area. Our colleague, the Minister, Deputy Martin, did much work in the previous Oireachtas, which informed the programme for Government commitment to examine defects in housing, and particular regard is had to the recommendations of the report of the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, called Safe as Houses. The Minister, Deputy O'Brien, established a working group to examine defects in housing. It has been meeting monthly since March last year. The terms of reference in May last year focused on fire safety, structural safety and water ingress defects in purpose-built apartment buildings, including duplexes constructed between 1991 and 2013. I know that will not cover everything, but it is where the focus is. It includes an evaluation of the potential cost of technical remediation options and pursuing options and possible financial solutions to effect a resolution in line with the programme for Government commitment to identify options for those impacted by defects to access low-cost, long-term finance. It is critical the work is concluded as soon as possible to help apartment holders.

There are supposed to be six whole-time equivalent psychology posts in County Wexford's children's disability network team. There are currently only two in situ. This renders the disability network team almost unworkable, considering the waiting lists. Four posts are still vacant. Two of the four positions have been vacant since August and September 2021. This is causing untold damage and severe pressure for families, and most of all for the vulnerable children themselves. Children's disability network teams provide support services for all children with significant teams and who require a team of professionals working together, but they cannot function when two thirds of the staff are missing. How long will this be allowed to continue for? When will all these posts be filled? Families are suffering. Vulnerable children are left without proper services. The current staff in the Wexford disability network team are stretched to their limit. People in Wexford are feeling totally let down by this abject failure to provide professional services for their vulnerable children.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I am aware it is taking a long time to recruit to those posts. I have been in contact with the HSE. It is re-advertising some of those positions. It is a failure within the HSE that it takes so long, approximately 40 weeks, to fill a post. We are all addressing it across Government.

The Minister will be aware the National Transport Authority, NTA, has licensed Aircoach to operate six routes connecting Dublin Airport with Dublin, Cork, Galway and Belfast cities. It must be acknowledged that management and staff, particularly the drivers at Aircoach, deserve great credit for keeping the service running during Covid-19. However, I have been contacted by customers who use a free travel pass and who find themselves disadvantaged as they cannot book an Aircoach ticket online. It is the only way of guaranteeing a seat on a particular service. Since passenger volumes have returned to normal, this has caused great anxiety. I am aware Irish Rail provide an online booking system for customers with the travel pass, which is very convenient. I have contacted Aircoach about this issue but have not received a reply. Will the Minister raise the issue, asking that the matter would be raised with the NTA, which is responsible for regulating, supervising and licensing the service, to ensure people with a travel pass are not disadvantaged?

I am glad the Deputy has raised this issue. Aircoach and other commercial coach operators have, as the Deputy has said, provided an important service through Covid and in ordinary times. They were expanding rapidly, as well as our public service obligation, PSO, services, and will do so again as we return from Covid. There is not an obligation on commercial operators to take travel passes, but many do and they avail of a subvention scheme in that regard. I will follow up on the details. I do not have the specifics in this case but I will ask my office to look at it and very much encourage the NTA to try to support them and make it available.

News broke yesterday that the next round of training for the Garda armed support unit, ASU, has been halted. I have been informed, however, that gardaí who had been selected for that training were told that it has been cancelled outright. The selected gardaí have been waiting since 2019 to take part in this armed support unit training. Armed support units across Dublin barely have enough resources to be operational and are only at 75% capacity. Ireland has a high rate of gun violence. Our gun murder rate is six times that of Britain. Amid a deadly feud in Finglas, which is spilling out into our own constituency in Dublin Bay South and right across the south inner city, why is the Government being so complacent at resourcing the ASU? The Government must intervene. The cancellation of ASU training courses must be undone. The training must be fast-tracked to bring armed support units up to full operational levels.

That would seem to be a matter for An Garda Síochána which is responsible and independent in its allocation of resources. The Government does provide the broader overall financing, but I will ask the Minister for Justice to see if inquiries can be made on this specific case. We need gardaí who are trained properly. I will ask for the details but I believe it is a matter for An Garda Síochána.

The Government needs to get a grip on the national retrofitting scheme given what the climate committee was told on Tuesday about gaps in the quality of materials, training and skills, and an apparent lack of oversight. The EU Court of Auditors gave Ireland a "must do better" report on our better energy, warmer homes scheme, and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform report was not much better. There is no one in charge, and when nobody is in charge, there is nobody responsible and nobody can be held accountable. The potential gaps exposed show that the Government is playing fast and loose with public trust and public money, and neither of those should be squandered. The retrofit scheme must be right to prevent a wealth transfer of public funds. Optics over substance is taking green washing to a whole new level. Will the Minister appoint a type of carbon tsar, based in the Department of the Taoiseach, to take charge of the retrofitting scheme? Judging on past performance as an indicator, at least we will know who to go to and who to bring before the Committee of Public Accounts if the retrofits need another retrofit.

Let me be very clear, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland is in charge of delivering the retrofitting scheme. The SEAI now has 22 years of experience, real skill and a significant increase of an additional 100 staff in the past two years, to make sure that they and the industry are in place to deliver on the massive expansion we need to do in the retrofitting area. There has been specific attention since the very start on making sure standards are upheld, operators are registered, there are routine checks and making sure the work done is actually to specification and that it works. The Deputy is right. If we have to retrofit a retrofit programme, it is deeply damaging in a whole range of different ways. The SEAI has the skills, the ability and the staff, and I believe it is delivering on our plan.

St. Mary's Special School in Navan, County Meath, was informed a few weeks ago that the speech and language therapy service at the school was to be withdrawn in four weeks. The therapist at St. Mary's does not just work with the 55 pupils. She also works closely with the principal, she trains the teachers on how best to teach the children, and she works with parents and gives guidance to everyone involved. The principal has said that the therapist is the best she has seen in her 28 years teaching. The nationwide plan to withdraw these services from schools will have a detrimental effect on pupils and parents. The teachers and the principal of this school all fear that the children will regress significantly. Only five children will be able to keep working with the therapist, with 50 children left in limbo. Parents have informed me there is no alternative plan in place with the HSE for these children, or if there, is the HSE has not discussed it with parents. Will the Minister ensure the removal of therapists from special schools is stopped and that the therapists lost are restored immediately? Children cannot be collateral damage because of these decisions.

I thank the Deputy for raising the question today and for giving me the opportunity to bring the House up to speed on it. I met earlier this week with the Minister of State, Deputy English, on the matter and I will be meeting with the school principal, Maria, before the end of May to discuss the issue and to have a positive outcome with her.

The Minister met with families of the Owenacurra health facility in Midleton, County Cork, and he is aware of that situation. The needs of some 400 people have not been met in the past two years because of two short-term respite beds. The Committee on Health and the Sub-Committee on Mental Health have called for the reversal of the HSE's decision to close the centre. I ask the Minister to go back to the Ministers to tell the HSE to reverse that situation. Last Saturday night, a woman who was refused services slept in her car outside the centre. I am asking and appeal once again to the Minister and the Ministers of State to tell the HSE to reverse the decision to close the Owenacurra health facility, in Midleton, County Cork.

I was very glad, in a visit to Cork last week, to meet some of relatives of the residents of the centre, to listen with real intent to their heartfelt stories about their relatives, and to hear how this is a home that works and that is central to the lives of those residents. Having returned from Cork, I said I would follow up and do whatever I could do. Further follow-up has indicated it is complicated because I am told there is a fire inspector's report-----

It is very simple. Just ask them to reverse it and provide the services the HSE has failed to provide.

Please allow the Minister to respond.

I am just reporting back what I heard having followed it up, and with real concern for the relatives concerned. I do not want to be inaccurate here, but there is a report from the fire officer that says the building is not fit for purpose and that some residents must be moved. It is a complex issue but those residents and their needs must be looked after.

I will take the Minister, Leo and Micheál out of the bog for a while. It is clear they have bogged down to the bane. Fertiliser costs are savage and are putting farmers under savage pressure. However, if proper levels of lime were applied to the land, it would increase fertility, make it more productive, and reduce the amount of fertiliser needed to be spread on the land. Will the Minister bring back the subsidy for lime? It was there before. I am asking for this, please, given the increased transport costs for delivering lime and the increased cost of everything. It would help farmers a lot to bring back the subsidy for lime. If the Government is real about reducing nitrate use, this would be one way to help.

I absolutely agree with Deputy Healy-Rae. He is right that the price of fertiliser has gone through the roof. It is not just the price. There are restrictions on availability given what is happening with Russia. My understanding is that this summer we may have a 30% reduction in the amount of nitrate fertiliser applied. How this is going to work will be critical. The Deputy is also right that the application of lime, especially combined with really good soil analysis, water and grasslands management, and moving towards a mixed sward system could give us a very productive grazing system with a much-reduced cost and a better environmental output. Lime could have a critical role in that, so I will ask my colleague, the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, to look at taking up the suggestion. I believe it is a good one.

Will the Minister indicate when it is proposed to publish the assisted decision-making (capacity) (amendment) Bill 2021?

I understand that pre-legislative scrutiny has been completed. Is it still the intention of the Minister to commence the Parts of the main Act in June as reported?

Yes, it is the intention to undertake those sections in June. We have had a very useful and lengthy pre-legislative process. The report has come to my Department and my officials are working with the Attorney General's office on some points. A couple of other points have also come in, which we may bring forward as Committee Stage amendments. We see the importance of this, however, and of setting up the Decision Support Service, DSS. We want to move away from the wardship system that is so outdated. The DSS is the mechanism to do that but we need this legislation to pass. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and I will be working to get it through the House as quickly as possible.

We are out of time but we have two remaining Deputies present. Deputy Kerrane has 30 seconds.

There is a commitment in the programme for Government to develop a pension solution for family carers. That commitment is now nearly two years old. The Report of the Commission on Pensions, which was published seven months ago and on which we still await the Government's response, made a number of recommendations for family carers.

Can a commitment be made to ensure that this pension solution for family carers is brought about in the next budget? They have waited long enough. Family carers deserve a full State pension; they deserve no less. They have waited a very long time. This must be done in the next budget.

I have received many queries from Irish people who are returning home to live from parts of Canada and the US and whose driving licenses are non-exchangeable. We understand the biggest difficulties facing Irish citizens returning home are the cost of car insurance and applying for a driving licence.

While I welcome the announcement to authorise the exchange of Ukrainian driving licences for Irish driving licences, and it is great to see the National Driver Licence Service, NDLS, gearing up to accept applications for licence exchange from Ukrainian refugees, it is crucially important that the Minister's Department also reviews current procedures for Irish residents holding full licences that were issued in the US and parts of Canada and that we implement a similar exchange system in order that it is easier for them to return to Irish roads.

Deputy Kerrane's question is similar to the question Deputy Harkin asked earlier in terms of carers. It is appropriate in the run up to the budget process for us to look at whether such a carer's pension arrangement could be included. I would support it but I think it has to be part of a wider balancing of the income and receipts measures. We will have to work on a strong partnership approach as we go into next year's budget because it will be a challenging time. I encourage the Deputy and various Oireachtas committees, including the Committee on Budgetary Oversight, the Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach, the Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and others to make the case, and I hope it is heard.

I will follow up for Deputy Dillon in terms of the provisions that will allow us to accelerate and ease the cost for those people coming from Canada and the US to be able to swap their licences. It makes no sense for us to put blatant bureaucratic hurdles in the way of people we welcome into our country, be they displaced Ukrainian people, Irish citizens or others coming from the US and Canada. I will ask my Department to follow up and contact the Deputy to look at the details of that.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar fionraí ar 1.13 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 1.53 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 1.13 p.m. and resumed at 1.53 p.m.