The report of the Business Committee has been circulated. In accordance with Standing Order 35, I ask Deputy Ó Cathasaigh to move this week's Order of Business.
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
Wednesday's business shall be:
-Motions for Revised Estimates for Public Services 2022 [Votes 27, 28, 33, 35, 36 and 38] (to be moved together and decided without debate by one question)
-Motion re Referral to Committee of the Planning and Development (Street Furniture Fees) Regulations 2022 (without debate)
-Motion re Ministerial Rota for Parliamentary Questions (without debate)
-Motion re Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council to enable Eurojust to collect, preserve and analyse evidence relating to war crimes in Ukraine (to conclude within 55 mins)
-Finance (Covid-19 and Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2022 (Report and Final Stages) (to conclude within 60 mins)
-Competition (Amendment) Bill 2022 (Report and Final Stages) (to conclude within 60 mins)
Private Members' Business shall be the Motion re Rising Rental Costs, selected by Sinn Féin.
Thursday's business shall be:
-Statements on Government's Response on Accommodation Needs to those Fleeing Ukraine (not to exceed 210 mins)
Private Members' Business shall be the Motion re Sale and Supply of Turf Regulations, selected by the Independent Group.
Proposed Arrangements for this week's business
In relation to Wednesday's business, it is proposed that:
1. the Motions for Revised Estimates for Public Services 2022 [Votes 27, 28, 33, 35, 36 and 38] shall be moved together and decided without debate by one question, which shall be put from the Chair;
2. the Motion re Referral to Committee of the Planning and Development (Street Furniture Fees) Regulations 2022 shall be taken without debate;
3. the Motion re Ministerial Rota for Parliamentary Questions shall be taken without debate;
4. the Motion re Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council to enable Eurojust to collect, preserve and analyse evidence relating to war crimes in Ukraine, shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion after 55 minutes, and the following arrangements shall apply:
(i) the opening speech of a Minister or Minister of State shall be followed by a speech of a member of Sinn Féin, with those speeches not exceeding 10 minutes in each case;
(ii) the speeches of the members of the Labour Party, Social Democrats, People Before Profit-Solidarity, the Regional Group, the Rural Independent Group and the Independent Group, who shall be called upon in that order, shall not exceed 5 minutes in each case;
(iii) a Minister or Minister of State shall be called upon to make a speech in reply which shall not exceed 5 minutes; and
(iv) members may share time;
5. the proceedings on the Report and Final Stages of the Finance (Covid-19 and Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2022 shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion after 60 minutes by one question which shall be put from the Chair, and which shall, in relation to amendments, include only those set down or accepted by the Minister for Finance;
6. the proceedings on the Report and Final Stages of the Competition (Amendment) Bill 2022 shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion after 60 minutes by one question which shall be put from the Chair, and which shall, in relation to amendments, include only those set down or accepted by the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment;
7. Private Members’ Business, the Motion re Rising Rental Costs, shall be taken on the conclusion of the Competition (Amendment) Bill 2022;
8. no oral Parliamentary Questions pursuant to Standing Order 46(1) to a member of the Government other than the Taoiseach shall be taken; and
9. notwithstanding the ordinary routine of business as contained in Schedule 3 to Standing Orders, topical issues shall be taken on the conclusion of Private Members' Business.
In relation to Thursday's business, it is proposed that:
1. notwithstanding the ordinary routine of business as contained in Schedule 3 to Standing Orders, the Dáil shall adjourn on the conclusion of topical issues pursuant to Standing Order 37, which shall be taken on the conclusion of private members' business pursuant to Standing Order 169;
2. the Statements on Government's Response on Accommodation Needs to those Fleeing Ukraine shall not exceed 210 minutes, with arrangements in accordance with those agreed by Order of the Dáil of 30th July 2020, for 200 minutes, following which a Minister or Minister of State shall be called upon to make a statement in reply which shall not exceed 10 minutes, and members may share time; and
3. no private member's Bill or motion for a Committee report pursuant to Standing Order 102 and Standing Order 160 shall be taken, and private members' business pursuant to Standing Order 169, the Motion re Sale and Supply of Turf Regulations, shall be taken on the conclusion of the Statements on Government's Response on Accommodation Needs to those Fleeing Ukraine.
The Government has allocated just 60 minutes for the Finance (Covid-19 and Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2022. This is an important Bill. A number of Opposition amendments have been tabled. Sinn Féin tabled amendments that would, for example, reverse the Government-imposed increase in the price of home heating oil that came into place last Sunday and, further, reduce it by €118. The amendments would also lead to a reduction in the cost of petrol, diesel and agri-diesel. These are important amendments and, regardless of whether the Taoiseach supports them, he will, I hope, agree it is important Deputies have an opportunity to discuss their various merits or otherwise. One hour is simply not good enough. We ask, in good faith, that the Government allocate additional time.
I totally concur with Deputy Carthy. As I indicated to Deputy Denis Naughten, who was deputising for the Ceann Comhairle at the meeting of the Business Committee last Thursday, we have been asking for several weeks for a proper debate on agriculture and the many issues relating to agriculture and food supply, such as the cost of fertilisers, oil and everything else. The Government last night announced some paltry, ha'penny scheme. We need something worthwhile. Is the Government so far removed from the land that it has dumped the wellingtons and is forgetting rural Ireland? It is all about the Pale, Cork city and other places and green projects, and to hell with farmers. To hell or to Connacht; the old slogan. We depend on the farming community. Every village, town and hamlet depends on them, as does our food supply. I want a meaningful debate. The Government Chief Whip could not indicate last week when the Government would give us time to debate the issue here. We need a full and comprehensive debate on farming issues and food supply.
I am conscious we have had an exchange on the national maternity hospital issue, but the key question is why we do not see it moving into public ownership if it is, indeed, to be in public ownership in all but name, given the 299-year lease. That question has not been satisfactorily answered. Might we amend the Order of Business to take some time to tease out that question and debate why we cannot look at a compulsory purchase order to see the State finally take effective and legal ownership of the site on which the hospital is to be built?
The Minister for Health has already made it clear that he is going to appear before the Joint Committee on Health. One would assume that the committees exist to interrogate these matters.
I am aware that the issue is going to the committee. The Minister should, however, make statement in the Dáil and all groups should have an opportunity to make statements and ask the Minister questions on the critical issue of the future of the national maternity hospital before any decision is made by the Cabinet because there is dispute over the so-called guarantees and the future of this absolutely critical facility for the delivery of the state-of-the-art healthcare we want for women in this country. That uncertainty has to be resolved. We need to get the hospital the women of this country deserve. The Minister should come in here and make a statement and we should have an opportunity to make statements and ask questions.
That is fine, but I again put it to the Deputy that during the Covid crisis, Members got fiercely excited about the centrality of the work of the committees and said that they should not be sidelined and should be allowed to do their work. It appears to me that this is part of the work they need to do.
Maith an fear.
I agree with the previous contributions. This is a €1 billion investment that the State will be making. It is incredibly important for the women of Ireland that this is done correctly. I welcome the fact that the documents were published last night. It would be worthwhile to provide some time to enable Members and the general public to take a look through them to see whether any issues arise. It is very important that we have a debate on this matter, if not this week, then next week. It is crucial that such a debate happen before the Minister brings the deal back to the Cabinet.
I am conscious that we have a day and half this week to get business done in the plenary session. Many items will be covered by the House today and tomorrow including: the finance legislation; the Sinn Féin Private Member's motion; the Topical Issue debates; oral questions to the Ministers for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media and Housing, Local Government and Heritage; two sets of Leaders' Questions; statements on the Government's response to the accommodation needs of those fleeing Ukraine; and further Private Member's business from the Independent Group tomorrow evening. It is not going to be possible to accommodate further business this week but we could commit to a debate on agriculture next week. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine will be available to take such a debate next week and the Chief Whip has indicated a willingness to accommodate it. With regard to the issue of the national maternity hospital, we just discussed the matter during Leaders' Questions. The Minister for Health has published all of the documentation and has made it clear that he will go before the Joint Committee on Health to brief members and hear what they have to say in respect of the issue. Next week's business is a matter for the Business Committee but I do not see us being in a position to facilitate-----
On this week's business, an hour is not sufficient to discuss the Finance (Covid-19 and Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2022.
We are not in a position to facilitate a debate on the national maternity hospital this week.
Would it be feasible to have a debate here on the issue of the maternity hospital after the Minister has had his discussion with the Joint Committee on Health if there continues to be a desire for one?
I am open to it. I am not against debate but the Government-----
That would seem to address the concerns.
-----also has to take decisions.
If I may, the Ceann Comhairle suggested a good compromise.
You may not. The Deputy may only raise one matter. I am trying to facilitate Members.
Are we having a debate on agriculture next week?
There will be a debate on agriculture next week.
I welcome that.
It is up to the House. The Minister is available for a debate on agriculture. The Deputy has been asking for one.
On Deputy Carthy's question about the-----
The Taoiseach regularly states that we need time for legislation. Today, there is a legislative Bill coming before the House to which several amendments have been proposed but only 60 minutes have been allowed to debate them. We will not get through the first amendment. We need to have time to discuss these things.
It is Report and Final Stages that are being taken.
It has gone through Committee Stage. There was an extensive debate on Committee Stage.
There was not. The debate was also guillotined.
Ah, come on.
There is a need for comprehensive debate.
The Taoiseach has answered the question. I must put the question.
It was not guillotined.
- Berry, Cathal.
- Brophy, Colm.
- Browne, James.
- Bruton, Richard.
- Burke, Colm.
- Butler, Mary.
- Cahill, Jackie.
- Calleary, Dara.
- Cannon, Ciarán.
- Carey, Joe.
- Carroll MacNeill, Jennifer.
- Chambers, Jack.
- Collins, Niall.
- Costello, Patrick.
- Coveney, Simon.
- Crowe, Cathal.
- Devlin, Cormac.
- Dillon, Alan.
- Donnelly, Stephen.
- Duffy, Francis Noel.
- Durkan, Bernard J.
- English, Damien.
- Farrell, Alan.
- Feighan, Frankie.
- Fitzpatrick, Peter.
- Flaherty, Joe.
- Flanagan, Charles.
- Fleming, Sean.
- Grealish, Noel.
- Griffin, Brendan.
- Harris, Simon.
- Haughey, Seán.
- Higgins, Emer.
- Humphreys, Heather.
- Kehoe, Paul.
- Lahart, John.
- Leddin, Brian.
- Lowry, Michael.
- Madigan, Josepha.
- Martin, Micheál.
- Matthews, Steven.
- McConalogue, Charlie.
- McEntee, Helen.
- McGrath, Michael.
- Moynihan, Aindrias.
- Moynihan, Michael.
- Murnane O'Connor, Jennifer.
- Naughten, Denis.
- Naughton, Hildegarde.
- Noonan, Malcolm.
- O'Brien, Darragh.
- O'Brien, Joe.
- O'Callaghan, Jim.
- O'Connor, James.
- O'Dea, Willie.
- O'Donnell, Kieran.
- O'Donovan, Patrick.
- O'Gorman, Roderic.
- O'Sullivan, Christopher.
- O'Sullivan, Pádraig.
- Ó Cathasaigh, Marc.
- Ó Cuív, Éamon.
- Phelan, John Paul.
- Rabbitte, Anne.
- Richmond, Neale.
- Ring, Michael.
- Shanahan, Matt.
- Smith, Brendan.
- Smyth, Niamh.
- Smyth, Ossian.
- Troy, Robert.
- Varadkar, Leo.
- Andrews, Chris.
- Bacik, Ivana.
- Barry, Mick.
- Boyd Barrett, Richard.
- Brady, John.
- Browne, Martin.
- Buckley, Pat.
- Cairns, Holly.
- Canney, Seán.
- Carthy, Matt.
- Clarke, Sorca.
- Collins, Michael.
- Connolly, Catherine.
- Cronin, Réada.
- Crowe, Seán.
- Cullinane, David.
- Daly, Pa.
- Donnelly, Paul.
- Farrell, Mairéad.
- Funchion, Kathleen.
- Guirke, Johnny.
- Harkin, Marian.
- Healy-Rae, Danny.
- Healy-Rae, Michael.
- Howlin, Brendan.
- Kerrane, Claire.
- Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
- McGrath, Mattie.
- McNamara, Michael.
- Mitchell, Denise.
- Munster, Imelda.
- Murphy, Catherine.
- Murphy, Paul.
- Murphy, Verona.
- Mythen, Johnny.
- Nash, Ged.
- Nolan, Carol.
- O'Callaghan, Cian.
- O'Reilly, Louise.
- O'Rourke, Darren.
- Ó Broin, Eoin.
- Ó Laoghaire, Donnchadh.
- Ó Murchú, Ruairí.
- Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.
- Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
- Pringle, Thomas.
- Quinlivan, Maurice.
- Ryan, Patricia.
- Shortall, Róisín.
- Stanley, Brian.
- Tully, Pauline.
- Ward, Mark.
- Whitmore, Jennifer.
We turn now to Questions on Policy or Legislation. I call Deputy Carthy.
Many people are still reeling from the fact that in the middle of a cost-of-living emergency, the Government has further increased the costs of home heating oil and other fuels this week. Imagine how those families felt when they learned in this morning's Irish Independent that the Government provided a mechanism for millionaires, with net assets of millions, to put off paying taxes during the Covid pandemic. Why is it that the Government can always find schemes to benefit wealthy people? In this instance, it allows them to warehouse €6 million in taxes without paying interest, yet the Government constantly finds a reason to delay, frustrate or simply refuse to support families and workers in heating their homes, getting to work or feeding their families.
As was predicted in this House for many months, we now know that groceries are the latest necessity to see significant price hikes. Does the Taoiseach now accept the Government needs to introduce a comprehensive package of measures to address the cost-of-living crisis? This crisis was made worse by the Government's actions this week through another carbon tax hike.
That is a very dishonest presentation. This Government intervened in an unprecedented way during the Covid-19 pandemic to protect workers, in the main, businesses and enterprises right across the economy to an extraordinary degree. It was the right thing to do because of the protection it gave to workers and jobs. That was evidenced by the rebound in the economy in the aftermath of the pandemic as we emerged from the emergency phase of Covid itself.
Workers were not able to warehouse their tax owed.
The cost of living is a very serious issue brought on by the war in Ukraine and, as economies rebounded from Covid-19, the major imbalance between supply and demand. Since the budget, we have allocated €2 billion to a whole range of measures to reduce VAT rates, for example, in addition to the decision to increase the free fuel allowance. Some €914 was paid to eligible households over the course of the winter. An additional lump sum of €125 was paid to 370,000 households and a further €100 on top of that.
So the answer to the question is "No".
"No" is your answer.
We have brought in a very comprehensive range of measures on the cost of living. The Deputy knows that.
You increased the cost of home heating oil this week.
Please. Deputy Bacik.
We offset it.
The homelessness figures published on Friday showed an increase of 23% in the past year. These are alarming figures. We know a major cause of homelessness is the lack of protection for renters against evictions and simply a lack of supply of sufficient homes for rental. In my constituency of Dublin Bay South, we have a particularly high proportion of households and individuals who are reliant on private rental accommodation. It is one of the reasons that last autumn, the first Bill I introduced in this House as a Deputy was a renters' rights Bill, which was legislation seeking to ensure greater security of tenure for tenants, in addition to ensuring better quality of life, better standards in rental accommodation and a three-year rent freeze to protect against the sort of dreadful hikes in rents we have seen.
I ask the Taoiseach for an update as to whether and when we can see some of the principles in that legislation being brought into force. It was not opposed by the Government and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy O'Brien, said he would look forward to working with me to bring aspects of it into effect.
In the first instance, the overall homeless figures remain significantly below the peak of October 2019, but the upward trend remains a serious issue of concern for the Government. A number of factors underpin that increase. It needs to be pointed out that the current level of family homelessness at 1,080 is 34% below the peak figure recorded in July 2018. The number of children under-18 associated with these families is 31% below the peak level recorded in September 2019.
This Government has introduced approximately six rental Acts to deal with a whole range of issues, including protection. We will work with the Deputy and other Members to see how we can further enhance that.
Today the Taoiseach has repeatedly said that concerns around the national maternity hospital have been comprehensively addressed and that without question legal guarantees are in place. But that is not entirely correct because there are still many concerns. In fact, two of the experts on the HSE board expressed concerns about the legal framework in place and as a result of those concerns they dissented from the vote. Those two experts were Professor Deirdre Madden who is a professor in law, and I believe is the only legal expert on the HSE board, and Dr. Sarah McLoughlin who is a public advocacy and ethics expert. I believe the Taoiseach appointed Dr. McLoughlin to the Medical Council at one time because of her expertise in the area. Is the Taoiseach concerned that these two experts on the HSE board have expressed concerns about the legal ownership, the site and the building-----
-----and the governance control of the proposed maternity hospital?
Time is up. Time is up, Deputy, please.
Will the Taoiseach agree to meet with these experts-----
Deputy the time is up.
-----or for the Minister for Health to meet with those experts to hear what their concerns are-----
Am I wasting my breath?
-----because they cannot get them on the public record, and to address those concerns?
Sorry, Ceann Comhairle. Thank you.
Please. The Deputy is not the only one. But please would people have some respect?
We have the strongest legal advice from the Attorney General in relation to these matters in terms of advising the Government on the legal guarantees that have been given. I am not privy to the HSE board meetings. It is a new departure that we now seem to be getting into a situation where there is public discussion of the individual contributions - whether they are accurate or not I do not know - of each individual member of the HSE board if they happen to take a particular stance on a particular issue. That is a new departure that I do not intend to engage with because I cannot second guess meetings of a corporate body like the HSE governing authority.
In a similar way that the Taoiseach cannot second guess the decisions of the St. Vincent's board.
What I can say is that the new hospital will have clinical, operational and financial independence and that there are a number of legal instruments that guarantee that all the services that are legally permissible in this State will be provided to the women of Ireland now and well into the future and that is important.
Thank you. We are out of time. I call Deputy Paul Murphy.
The deputy chair of An Bord Pleanála, Mr. Paul Hyde, is under investigation for failing to declare a conflict of interest in relation to a development in Blackpool, Cork which bordered a site owned by his father. This, however, appears to be only the tip of the iceberg for Mr. Hyde. I have been given documents from 2018 highlighting another proposed development, this time in Carrigtwohill, Cork on a plot of land near another site in which he has a share through a company called Blandcrest.
Deputy. Please, Deputy Murphy. You are making allegations against somebody. There are insinuations against someone who is not here to defend themselves. It is completely out of order.
These are fact which are clearly on the public record.
It is completely out of order.
Yet again, he was one of three deciding offers on this application but declared no conflict. The land borders another site that at the time of the 2018 decision was owned by his father and subsequently transferred to his brother. Another development is proposed for the area currently.
Blandcrest came under scrutiny in 2014 when Cork County Council broke procurement policy, spending €1.5 million on a railway underpass on land owned by this company. That underpass was completely unnecessary being just 200 m from another. Why was public money spent?
The Deputy is out of time, please.
Will the Taoiseach make sure there is a full public investigation into this and that the matter that I am raising and others that may come to light in the next days are included in that inquiry?
I understand that the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is aware of the allegations that have been made and he understands that those allegations are denied by the board member concerned. However, a senior counsel has been appointed to provide a report to inform his consideration of the matter. Terms of reference and timelines for this report are currently being finalised. An Bord Pleanála is independent in the performance of its functions under the Planning Act. Pending the outcome of these considerations it would be inappropriate for me to comment further.
The Office of the Planning Regulator has independently written to the Chairperson of An Bord Pleanála requesting him to outline the systems and procedures that An Bord Pleanála has in place to ensure effective compliance with the statutory duties provided for in the Planning Acts regarding declarations of intersect and any other information he considers relevant.
University Hospital Limerick, UHL, has been in crisis for some time. There is great concern about the accessibility to the hospital, the level and quality of care and the threat to patient safety. The Department of Health has appointed an expert team to investigate the chronic overcrowding and the apparent breakdown in the delivery of services. Despite the fact that UHL gained an additional 100 beds in the past 18 months, last Thursday it recorded 126 people on trolleys. That is the highest figure recorded since records began. These patients were not in the emergency department. They had been triaged and deemed to be in need of urgent admission.
What are the terms of reference for the expert team? Will they engage with the nursing staff, the GPs of the region and the ambulance services? Will they engage with patients and listen to the traumatic experiences of patients? It is imperative that they examine and indicate the additional supports and facilities that should be provided at Nenagh, Ennis and St. John's Hospital to alleviate pressure on UHL. Would they also examine the need for step-down beds? In the interests of transparency the outcome of this inquiry should be made public.
The Minister for Health wrote to the HSE CEO on 26 April to request that an expert team be sent to UHL to ascertain urgently what additional resources might be deployed as well as any changes that could be made quickly to alleviate the current pressures being experienced in the emergency department. That expert team began its assessment at UHL last week. A key part of the solution for Limerick is additional beds. As the Deputy said, 150 additional beds were opened in UL Hospital group since 1 January 2020 of which 98 have been in UHL. The hospital has reported that it is continuing to deal with record volumes of patients attending the emergency department. It recorded a 10% increase in attendances in the first quarter of this year compared with the same period in 2019. The hospital is working to ensure that care is prioritised for the sickest patients and as part of the escalation plan additional ward rounds, accelerated discharges and identification of patients who transferred to UL model 2 hospitals are all underway.
UHL is working with HSE Mid West community healthcare to formalise a governance structure to deliver on the investment in community care, hospital avoidance and chronic disease management for older persons.
There are further plans for Limerick including the provision of a 96-bed ward block at UHL. The award of a works contract was approved by the HSE board on 25 March.
I met a group of people today, mainly parents and siblings whose loved ones and family members are suffering with Lyme disease. It is time to tackle Lyme. They met the Tánaiste in 2015. They have met with so many people. All they want is quality of care and proper lab tests, which are available in Germany, to be recognised here. These people are getting old. They are parents and have adult children now. They are worried about their future because this is a long term illness. They want some quality of life, some treatments and a recognition of the disease. Above all, they want an awareness campaign especially in the forests, woodlands and other places with signs put up to advise people that they might get this bite unknown to themselves and become very sick. There is a need for the Government to recognise this and deal with it. It is not fair to have parents of adult children and younger having to come here to protest - they are very peaceful and dignified - to make their case.
They need supports and they need help.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. It has been of concern for quite some time. Many in the medical and health community do not treat it separately from other conditions. I will engage with the Minister for Health in relation to the representations the Deputy has received on this and come back to the Deputy on it.
The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, has expressed its concern around the number of patients on trolleys in Sligo University Hospital, SUH. I have raised this issue with the Taoiseach many times, most recently last December when there were 25 patients on trolleys in SUH. The Taoiseach said that he would ask the HSE to focus specifically on Sligo to determine how it could be helped further to alleviate pressure there in the next while. Yesterday there were 39 patients on trolleys in SUH. Today there are 50. That is double what it was when I raised that with the Taoiseach last December. These figures are not an aberration. I have looked at the analysis of Trolley Watch figures. Nationally, for the month of January from 2006 to 2022, the increase in numbers nationally was 22%. Does the Taoiseach know what it was in SUH? It was over 400%. Those figures are unbelievable but true.
It is an emergency. We need action.
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. There are challenges and pressures at Sligo General Hospital, as the Deputy outlined. Of that there is no doubt.
The HSE is working actively with sites of concern, including Sligo, to mitigate the situation. Key actions include reviewing discharges and egress options, liaising with smaller hospitals in the group to facilitate transfers, as appropriate, reviewing ED attendances, establishing alternative care pathways, as appropriate, in collaboration with community health organisation services and, of course, the prioritisation of diagnostics to aid in patient discharges. Capital funding has been allocated in 2022 to progress a new 42-bed medical block and two further floors, with four floors in total, for expansion of day services activities, including a car park extension at Sligo University Hospital. Included in these works is a new build consisting of 120 m by 210 m to enable the relocation of nuclear medicine and the reconfiguration of existing nuclear medicine with extension to take a second CT scanner and accompanying requirements. Additional critical care capacity with the provision of four new isolation rooms at the ICU in Sligo University Hospital was designed and procured in 2020. Construction is nearing completion. A two-storey modular extension at the front of the hospital was funded as part of the response to Covid 19 and became operational in January. That has provided additional waiting areas and treatment spaces for patients, as well as additional staff facilities. Minor internal department reconfiguration is to be completed by the end of May. Much capital work is, therefore, going in there to try to alleviate the pressures.
Next week we have a number of initiatives coming into play that will reduce the cost of travelling in public transport. This will help greatly with reducing its cost. However, there is an issue where the introduction of this scheme for commercial service will have a detrimental impact on services where a public service obligation, PSO, competes directly with a commercial service. I give the example of the Naas to Maynooth route. For someone with a student Leap card, the old PSO fare was €4.30. This will now be reduced to €1.70 but for a commercial private operator the fare will stay at €4.50. In the interest of fair play, the concession being given to public transport will have to be extended to private commercial operators. It is unfair competition. These private commercial operators will not be able to compete with this level of fare reduction for a public service. As I said, it is great we are reducing fares but it must be for all operators of public transport.
It is good that we have been in a position to reduce public transport fares as part of the cost-of-living measures. The Deputy raises a fair point and the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has engaged with commercial operators and will continue to engage to see if some resolution can be found to this.
Family carers are the backbone of care provision and an essential pillar in our healthcare system. It is increasingly clear the classification of carer's allowance as a social assistance payment does not recognise the uniqueness of family carers within our social welfare system. Many family carers I have spoken to feel strongly the means test for the allowance needs to be overhauled. As the assessment of needs for carers is applied to gross rather than net income and does not consider mortgage repayments, dependent children, college fees, nursing home support scheme contributions and medical costs, it does not reflect the reality faced by many caring families. Families may appear relatively financially comfortable based on their gross income but struggle to make ends meet when living expenses and costs of care are deducted. The expectation a carer provides full-time care at least 35 hours per week for just €16 more than the basic social welfare rates is untenable. Government needs to demonstrate it recognises the value of carers. I ask the Taoiseach to prioritise reforming the means testing of carers.
To be fair, reform of the carer's means test has been an ongoing issue. In budget 2022, the Government announced significant improvements in the means test for carer's allowance in recognition of the vital role carers play. The general weekly income disregard for carer's allowance will be increased from €332.50 to €350 for a single person and from €665 to €750 for a couple. That will enable more carers with modest incomes to become eligible for this scheme and those currently in receipt of a reduced payment may now receive a higher payment. The capital disregard will also be increased from €20,000 to €50,000 for carer's allowance. That will help carers who have accumulated relatively modest savings. These have been some of the more significant changes to the means test for carers in many years and were welcomed by carer representative groups at the time of the budget. In addition to these changes to the means test, all recipients of a weekly carer's payment will have seen a €5 increase from January and those with children will also have seen an increase in the qualified child payment.
I accept people will always want us to do more. Based on the total number of carers identified as part of census 2016-----
We are way over time.
-----it has been estimated a universal carer's payment would cost in excess of €1.2 billion per annum over and above current spending, so we have to weigh everything up in terms of all the various schemes we provide.
Since February housing assistance payment, HAP, headquarters has stopped new payment plans for tenants. Those who are already in a plan and there is a break do not get another one. We are dealing with a number of situations. Councillor Kevin Meenan raised at Dundalk municipal level the case of a healthcare assistant who was on a payment plan, got ill and was in hospital for an number of weeks. She returned home to find the letters from HAP waiting for her. She was told there would be no more payment plans and that she had to come up with €1,600 in legacy arrears in five days. This was not possible. HAP stopped the payment to the landlord and he has issued an eviction notice for the middle of May. She is facing an emergency operation this month as well as homelessness. Those on payment plans, even if they are broken, re-engage and clear arrears. Where does HAP think people are going to get this arrears payment in five days? Is it from moneylenders? This is a huge trigger for homelessness and needs to be changed.
I do not have the background to the individual case and it is very difficult in that scenario to respond but we will certainly talk to the authorities and highlight the issue the Deputy raised with them. The Deputy may be in a position to give details of the individual case to them.
It is very regrettable Ulster Bank and KBC Bank will be exiting the market. Traditionally, Ulster Bank had a very significant presence in the Border region. I know of many families, individuals and businesses in Cavan-Monaghan that are very concerned about the loss of banking services. This is by far the biggest logistical challenge for Irish banking since the introduction of the euro as there are 960,000 Ulster Bank accounts and 300,000 KBC accounts in the State. The backdrop to this is one of significant branch closures over the last decade and recent reduction of personnel through redundancy and non-replacement of retiring staff. This means there is huge potential for disruption and so much additional pressure on bank employees. There is a narrative out there about regular contact with key stakeholders, including the Central Bank, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission and the Banking & Payments Federation Ireland. An unacceptable omission there is the Financial Services Union, FSU, which is the representative body for bank employees. It is a key stakeholder. I ask the Government and Department of Finance to use their influence with the Central Bank to ensure the FSU is at all the relevant negotiations. I am aware the Central Bank is convening talks later this month with the five banks. The FSU, as representative of the employees, should be present at all negotiations critical for a smooth transition during the exit of these banks from the State.
I thank the Deputy for his comprehensive presentation. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and his officials are engaging with the banks that have indicated their intentions to leave the market, in particular, KBC and Ulster Bank. They have recently confirmed they will provide their customers with six months' notice to close their accounts. The Minister and his officials are also engaging with Banking & Payments Federation Ireland to ensure the remaining banks are prepared to accept applications from customers who are switching from the closing banks. As the Deputy said, on 27 April the Central Bank issued so-called "dear CEO" letters to the five retail banks and to the largest financial services direct debit originators setting out the regulator's expectations and the requirement for a customer-focused approach. On 17 May the Central Bank will meet the leaders of the retail banks at a round-table meeting to discuss their readiness for the migration of accounts from both Ulster Bank and KBC and to ensure all parties prioritise the interests of customers and prospective customers throughout the unprecedented volume of account migration.
I will certainly convey to the Minister the Deputy's point on the FSU being a key stakeholder. We will also be insisting the consumer protection code 2012 is adhered to in all aspects and that the code of conduct on the switching of payment accounts with payment service providers is in place to support customers.
I am afraid the time is up for Questions on Policy or Legislation. My apologies to the six Deputies who have not been reached. This is the first time since we introduced this new system that Deputies have not been reached. The reason is Members who got called exceeded their time very substantially and the answers exceeded the time.
I have to say, between Leaders' Questions and Questions on Policy or Legislation in recent times the disregard for the orders of the House are very significant. It is very difficult to conduct business in an orderly fashion if everybody ignores the time limits laid down. I do not make up the time limits - if Members do not like them they should change them - but it is my job to try to implement them. It is not easy when one is constantly ignored. I am not prepared to be ignored any further.