Skip to main content
Normal View

Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Vol. 1021 No. 7

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

There is a long-established pattern of the Israeli state targeting journalists who are covering the brutal occupation of Palestine. This systematic targeting has resulted in complaints being filed with the International Criminal Court and the United Nations. This morning, we awoke to the horrific news that Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh is the latest victim of this. She was shot dead - shot in the face by an Israeli sniper while doing her job covering an Israeli army attack on a Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin in the occupied West Bank. Another reporter was shot in the back. Both were clearly visible as journalists. They were wearing blue flak jackets. Shireen's killing has been described as an execution by the Israeli Defence Force. What intervention will the Government make on this matter, including through Ireland's position on the UN Security Council, to ensure Israel is held accountable for this?

The Government, through the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Department of Foreign Affairs, has condemned, and I condemn, the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. Media freedom and the safety of journalists must be protected. There is an extra obligation on state forces to ensure the protection of journalists. We express our deepest condolences to her family. We have called for a swift, thorough and independent investigation and will pursue this through all forums at our disposal as a Government. It is quite a shocking killing, without question.

Yesterday I raised with the Taoiseach the ongoing concerns of the Labour Party in respect of the ownership, control and governance of the new national maternity hospital. Since then, I know the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, has been engaging with the Committee on Health. Indeed, the parliamentary Labour Party looks forward to engaging with him. However, we have also seen the publication last night of a statement from Professor Deirdre Madden and Dr. Sarah McLoughlin in which they set out their concerns in respect of ownership, control and governance in more detail and point out the difference between freehold and leasehold ownership. The concerns they have set out exactly reflect the concerns the Labour Party has been expressing. They reminded us that in 2018 the Day report, produced by the independent review group commissioned by the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, recommended that the State should own the land on which hospitals and schools are built. The question remains as to why this recommendation was not followed then. Why are these Byzantine legal arrangements being favoured over the straightforward and clear-cut arrangement whereby the land would be gifted to the State? Why can it not be in public ownership and freehold?

I answered that question earlier, but the lease does give effective ownership to the State. In my view, there is no question about that. I have read the letters from Professor Deirdre Madden and Dr. Sarah McLoughlin. Again I make the point that it is not clear to me at all and no one has actually specifically explained from their perspective - from Deputy Bacik's perspective, for example - what the material difference is between the 300-year lease and a freehold ownership in the context of all legally permissible services being made available at the hospital, given the constitution of the hospital, the operating licence from the HSE to the hospital, the ministerial powers in the golden share to enforce the reserved powers of the constitution, the three members of the State appointed by the Minister of the day who will be on the board along with three from the national maternity hospital, and all the correspondence from every senior midwife in Ireland now, directors of midwifery-----

I thank the Taoiseach. I am moving on.

-----saying this should go ahead.

It is the conditionality that is the difference.

But the conditionality only relates-----

We are over time. Much as I would like to let it run, I call Deputy Cian O'Callaghan.

-----to the utilisation of the site, which is not an imposition on the maternity hospital, if you read the-----

Will the Taoiseach issue a formal apology in the Dáil to people who had their births registered illegally? As he is aware, there is considerable disappointment that the apology that was issued was issued by the Minister in the Seanad and with very little notice. Will the Taoiseach do the right thing and, with proper notice, give this apology on behalf of the State in the Dáil?

First, it is important to give context to this. The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, has led much very important work in respect of illegal birth registrations and, in the context of the Birth Information and Tracing Bill and the amendments thereto which take on quite a number of the recommendations from the child rapporteur in respect of illegal birth registrations, the Government believed it was appropriate that an apology would be made on behalf of the Government by the Minister. That said, I have heard what survivor groups and victim groups have said and, of course, I am more than willing to do this and will engage now with the Minister and with other groups in terms of timing and how that would be done best. What happened here in terms of the illegal registration of births, depriving people of their basic right to identity and consequential access to all information pertaining to their births, was shocking. The Birth Information and Tracing Bill, in my view, will address that. The issue of proper access to birth rights has gone on for decades and I welcome that this legislation will give an unprecedented level of comprehensive access that was long overdue.

We found out recently that 33 families and households who had been on the housing list in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council area for many years were removed from that list last year because they slightly exceeded the income thresholds. For at least five years, we have been asking for the income thresholds to be increased. We have had promise after promise by the Minister. He told me the review was completed at the end of last year. To give an example, I am aware of a woman who, along with her daughter, has been in homeless accommodation for three and a half years. She is working for a State agency and has just been taken off the list. I know of a couple, one of whom is a hairdresser while the other works in Tesco, who have been removed from the list. These are people on very low incomes. They have now lost all their years on the housing list. Their incomes would never even begin to get near the rents and house prices in the area and they have been removed from the list, yet we still do not have the raising of the income thresholds.

Go raibh maith agat, Deputy. The Taoiseach to respond.

When is it going to happen? Will the people who have been removed get their time back?

I thank the Deputy for his question. The review of the social housing income limits is nearing completion. I received a submission.

We are working through some changes in that regard. To be fair to the Deputy, he has raised this matter on a number of occasions, as have others on both sides of the House. The income limits have not been reviewed for years. There will be changes made. We are doing this as well in the context of the roll-out of our affordable schemes, such as cost rental, that will pertain to those who are above the social housing limits. We are nearing completion on that and it certainly will be done in this session.

I have engaged with Deputy Boyd Barrett on specific cases. We are open to looking at any anomalies that are within the system. The local authorities are the housing authorities in each of those areas.

They have a certain discretion, which we ask them to operate. The work will be done in this session.

I raise the decision by the ESB to decommission the wind farm in Derrybrien in my constituency. This is a terrible decision in light of what the Central Statistics Office, CSO, has published this week. A total of 40,000 houses have been getting wind energy from this project. It has also served to boost broadband and mobile telephone services in the area. It has been in operation since 2006, providing some €11 million per annum of electricity into the grid. We are talking about decommissioning it at a time when we need this energy. Second, the decommissioning process could cause a hell of a lot more environmental issues because there are 50 pylons and they are not just little poles. They are massive things, they are worth a lot of money and people around the world want to buy them. It would be a disgrace if this proceeds. I ask the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to consult the Attorney General to try find a way to keep the wind farm in operation.

Derrybrien does not have a distinguished history in regard to planning, installation, and its impact on the topography of the site and on residents in the area. It has been the subject of a very recent decision. As a country, we have been in infringement of EU directives in this space. It goes without saying that my Department and every other Department will play their part in ensuring we have the energy security we need. The case regarding Derrybrien has, in effect, been closed, but all options in regard to energy security will be looked at. My understanding is the ESB has accepted the recent decision on the decommissioning of Derrybrien. However, all options will be considered.

At present, there are huge waiting lists for basic but essential services, including occupational therapy, speech and language supports and psychology, in County Tipperary. In addition, there is no full-time family resource service for families in the county. This was highlighted recently by 11-year-old Cara Darmody of Ardfinnan National School, to whom I want to give special mention today. Cara, a fifth class student, has decided to do her junior certificate maths examination this year in an effort to raise funds. She is a passionate advocate for autism awareness and a big supporter of her two younger brothers, John and Neil, who have autism and are non-verbal. Cara is sitting the maths paper in June in an effort to raise funds for autism services at the autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit in Ardfinnan National School and at Scoil Chormaic Special School in Cashel. I ask the Taoiseach, please, to act to address this issue. The situation is so hard on families and children. It is desperate. The waiting lists are not improving and the delays and lack of services are simply appalling.

Thank you, Deputy. The Taoiseach to respond.

I salute 11-year-old Cara, who is a brave girl, for taking this initiative to raise funds. I hope the Taoiseach will listen.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I, too, pay tribute to Cara for what she is doing to raise awareness in respect of autism. I am very conscious of the situation of her two brothers, John and Neil. I have visited Scoil Chormaic Special School on a number of occasions but I do not think I have been to Ardfinnan National School recently. I salute all those involved in that area. As I have said in this House previously, I am a strong believer in greater provision within the school context in terms of putting in place multidisciplinary teams, which should happen in the first instance within special schools. I will be doing some further work with the respective Ministers in this regard.

I have raised the issue before of an independent review of University Limerick Hospitals Group, which includes the most consistently overcrowded hospital in the country. The Taoiseach agreed the proposal had some merit and would be considered but I have not heard back about it. Since then, an expert team has been sent in by the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, to ease overcrowding. I assume that expert team is firefighting, just like management there, in terms of the day-to-day issues of trying to treat people rather than taking a strategic view of what is required into the future. The issue is particularly so now that the elective hospital that was proposed by some of the Government's backbenchers as a possible solution has been ruled out by the Minister. Will the Taoiseach appoint somebody or have an expert review commissioned to take a strategic view of what can be done to ease overcrowding, including, if necessary, the upgrading of one of the other hospitals in the area or an increase in their workload? The current situation is unsustainable.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. To cut to the chase, the expert team will not just be about firefighting. Its purpose is to look at the entire management process and what is going on within the hospitals. There was a very good article by Paul Cullen in The Irish Times yesterday about how some hospitals have developed systems that are getting better outcomes than others. He instanced St. Luke's General Hospital in Kilkenny as a very good example. With different systems and mechanisms, one can get better outcomes, especially working in the context of a hospital group.

There is a foul, disgusting and obnoxious malodour emanating from the Drogheda wastewater treatment plant. It is at its worst at night, at weekends and during warm weather. Nearby residents often feel ill and their well-being is significantly affected. Despite frequent meetings with Irish Water, things have not changed. The directive from the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, that Irish Water must address these issues urgently was answered this week by the latter when it said it will have the final critical improvements in place in 2027. We cannot wait another five years to have this issue resolved. I urge that there be immediate Government intervention.

I am aware of the issue with Drogheda wastewater treatment plant and I thank the Deputy for raising it. Odour neutralising treatment will be implemented at the main pumping station this year. I assure him that I will make further contact with the chief executive of Irish Water to make sure any works that can be done are expedited. As the Deputy knows, the Government is putting €6 billion into capital infrastructure on a multi-annual basis between now and 2026. That has never been done before. Great progress is being made but there are still wastewater treatment plants, such as Drogheda, that have odour issues.

It is bigger than that. It is appalling.

Following the Deputy's intervention today, I assure him that I will make contact at a senior level with Irish Water and revert back to him.

I raise the issue of staffing in HSE psychological services. I have been contacted by a young man in my constituency who, to put it simply, has been strung along by the HSE and given no real therapeutic supports. This, of course, is a wider issue and not just in my constituency. Initially, the young man was seen by a psychologist in training, but when the training period ended, the supports also ended and there has been no replacement psychologist. There seems to be a recruitment issue and there are not enough staff. Students and trainees are being used to paper over cracks and the end result is that this young man, like many others, is not getting the supports he needs. What is being done to ensure there is adequate staffing in HSE psychological services? What is being done to ensure this young man who is asking for help gets the help he needs?

I thank the Deputy for his question. Psychology covers a wide area. I deal with psychology in the area of mental health provision and my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, deals with it in regard to disability services. I met with representatives of the Psychological Society of Ireland last week to discuss these issues. On average, between clinical psychologists, educational psychologists and counselling psychologists, there are approximately 84 graduates a year. As the Deputy knows, there is a huge differential between clinical psychologist trainees, who get support for their fees and 300 paid hours of placement every year, and other psychologists, who do not get any support and for whom it takes up to nine years to qualify. I will be meeting soon with the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, on this issue. It is very important we support all types of psychology and that we enhance the number of graduates who can qualify every year.

I raise the issue of places in autism classes in secondary schools. In Dublin 15, there are currently 30 autism classes in primary schools, which cater for a maximum of 180 students. There are nine autism classes in secondary schools, with a maximum of 54 places. Secondary school autism class enrolment operates in the same way as it does for primary schools, with six pupils per class and the provision then closing until graduation.

A recent survey relating to children in primary school found that in sixth class ten students have no secondary school autism placement with less than one month to go. Danu, the new local special school for Dublin 15, is at full capacity and will not open to new enrolments for five years. I ask the Taoiseach or a Minister to please intervene to ensure every child has access to an appropriate school placement. There will be a major public meeting on this on Monday in the Dublin 15 constituency. This is something that needs to be addressed immediately.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I will engage with the Minister on the issue. It relates to post-primary placements. About 287 additional special classes with 1,700 new places for the 2022-23 school year have already been approved and provided. There is, however, an issue with second level placements, as I discussed with Deputies yesterday. There is in place legislation by which the Minister can direct post-primary schools to develop post-primary autistic units. There is an obligation on all secondary schools to make that provision. This has happened in primary education since the late 1990s, when we brought in measures providing for automatic entitlements for children with special needs, including autism. It seems to me that at second level that progress has been much slower. I will engage with the education and training board, ETB, and others to see if we can get that provision expanded.

I have raised previously in the Chamber the provision of menopause supports. I do so again today because right now the women of Ireland are experiencing a shortage of hormone replacement therapy, HRT, medicine. It is a matter of huge concern to women who rely on HRT to combat menopause symptoms, especially those who experience severe symptoms. Currently, however, we are seeing extreme shortages, which are impacting people's lives. We see similar medication shortages in respect of paracetamol, and just yesterday I saw reports of shortages of hay fever medication such as Piriton. Last month I was told via a response to a parliamentary question that the Health Products Regulatory Authority would continue to liaise with suppliers of HRT medicine in the coming weeks with a view to securing commitments on supplies. What is the update on that?

I have spoken to the Minister for Health about this issue. It is a supply issue. It is not just an issue pertaining to Ireland but is a global supply issue. I have made it clear we will do everything we possibly can to secure additional supplies because it is very serious and not acceptable at current levels. I will ensure the Minister keeps in touch with Deputy Higgins about the matter.

The Commission on Pensions issued its report last year and made a number of recommendations. One was a requirement for benchmarking to ensure our older people are lifted out of the poverty trap. What progress has been made to ensure our older people can live in some small comfort during their twilight years? Will the Government commit to reducing the pension age, which was increased by the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government in 2011, back to 65?

All the recommendations of the pensions commission are integrated. One cannot cherry-pick them with the ease with which the Deputy has just done. There are significant cost implications also. The report was published in October 2021. I note that in Northern Ireland, the Deputy's party supported increasing the pension age to 66, so there is somewhat of an inconsistency in Sinn Féin's approach in this House and in the North. Equally, in the North the Deputy's party recognised the challenges around pensions provision into the future. Some very serious issues fall due to be considered by the Government and the Oireachtas more generally in respect of sustainability of pensions over the next 50 years and how we make sure there is sustainability in pensions provision. The Government has taken significant decisions on, for example, auto-enrolment, which is an important complementary-----

Go raibh maith agat, a Thaoisigh. Táimid thar am.

-----and supportive measure in addition to the State pension.

In the previous Dáil, the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill, which gives effect to a review of natural heritage areas, NHAs, carried out in 2014, passed the Dáil and the Seanad and then came back to the Dáil with Seanad amendments. The general election intervened, however. I note that the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill is on the list of other Bills, that is, the Bills in never-never land. Will the Taoiseach explain why this Bill, which has already been passed by the Dáil and the Seanad and was just awaiting a few amendments to be cleared by the Dáil, is not on the priority list and does not get reintroduced and quickly become law?

I will ask the Minister to go back and formally check that with the Department and we will come back to the Deputy on the matter. Generally, the Government has taken a very significant initiative on wildlife, particularly with the creation of a new agency in the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, and a significant expansion of resources and staff. We are very anxious about the protection of biodiversity, which is central to this. As I said yesterday in the Dáil, we all, collectively, have to get a grip on the protection of biodiversity and the climate change agenda that faces us in the world. We as a country have to make our contribution to that. That also manifests itself in the work we have to do on wildlife and its protection.

At the start of the year we were told that the shocking and tragic murder of Ashling Murphy would be a watershed. Yesterday, however, a mother of two, Lisa Thompson, was found murdered in her Ballymun home. Last month the country was shocked by the violent murders of Aidan Moffitt and Michael Snee in Sligo. Tom Niland was also attacked in his Sligo home last month. Those are just a few examples of the violent actions and murders happening in our society. The total number arrested for rape and assault in this State has doubled in the past ten years, yet only a small number of those cases have been tried in court. Ireland is becoming a harsher and more violent place, and it seems we have built in, accepted or tolerated some level of violence and murder in our society. It seems that outrage lasts as long as the media cycle. What steps is the Government taking to ensure we embed respect for life in society?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I extend my deepest sympathies to the family of Lisa Thompson following her horrific and barbaric murder. I do not believe there is any toleration of such barbaric acts in this House or in society. I genuinely do not believe there is any tolerance threshold for such violence at all. Very significant new measures have been brought in in respect of sentencing, Garda powers and the Garda being in a position to bring many people to justice for the commission of these horrific crimes. As I have said before, there has to be a whole-of-society response to such brutality. There can be no toleration of it.

The Irish men's sheds movement has been in existence for the past ten years, and over that period a network of 360 sheds has been established the length and breadth of the country. There are 11 in my constituency, in County Clare. Men's sheds offer a really important social outlet for men, offering them a collaborative space in which to meet. They are very valuable. They can work with their communities. Today the Irish Men's Sheds Association held a briefing ahead of its pre-budget submission. It is time the Government provided adequate supports and measures for this really important grassroots organisation. There is a commitment in the programme for Government to do that, and I ask the Taoiseach to support that and to prioritise the Irish Men's Sheds Association in the budget talks.

I am very familiar with the Irish Men's Sheds Association and the very many different groups I have met across the country. I pay tribute to the work they do and the camaraderie, the collegiality, the ending of isolation and so on, which are very positive community developments. Local authorities assist such sheds on the ground and various groups across the country. Each has different regional, location-specific services and approaches. The answer is "Yes". I think the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage met them the other day and the Minister for Rural and Community Development will meet them as well.

Page 119 of the programme for Government commits to ensuring transparency to protect and to enhance democracy.

Given recent allegations concerning a member of An Bord Pleanála, does the Taoiseach agree that the deputy chairperson of the board was correct in stepping aside without prejudice pending investigation of these allegations? If the Taoiseach agrees, as I assume he does, how can he reconcile this with the Tánaiste continuing in office while, following an investigation by An Garda Síochána, a file was sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions? Is it the Taoiseach's position, as people can be forgiven for believing at this stage, that depending on who one is in Irish society and what position one holds, different rules and standards apply?

I do not accept the basic proposition that the Deputy has put forward in respect of what has happened at An Bord Pleanála in terms of every live file, for example, being considered. I dealt with this earlier in a reply. The individual concerned - the deputy chairman - has acknowledged what he has said was inadvertent, but there are other issues. The Minister has appointed a senior counsel to look into those investigations. I do not think that case, in terms of the context of An Bord Pleanála, is comparable to the other issues that the Deputy has raised.

Indeed, a DPP file would be more serious. Would the Taoiseach agree?

I would like to ask the Taoiseach today why there are no affordable housing targets set for my county of Wexford and why Wexford is left out of the Government's affordable housing scheme. Every day, I deal with young couples who are striving to purchase their own homes but are caught in no-man's land - earning too much to be eligible for social housing yet too little to qualify for a mortgage through the banks. Rents in Wexford are up over 15% and house prices up over 12% on the previous year, and climbing steadily. The fact is County Wexford is now part of the Dublin commuter belt and housing is becoming more unaffordable by the day. Only last week, a three-bedroom house in north Wexford fetched over €400,000. The same week only one house was available on to rent for €1,800 per month. Young families who are renting do not have a hope of scraping a deposit together at this rate. I would appreciate if the Taoiseach could explain why the people of Wexford are being excluded from the Government's affordable housing scheme.

I can confirm for the Deputy that Wexford is not being excluded. No county is excluded from the affordable housing fund. It is open to every local authority to apply and bring schemes forward. We have the most comprehensive affordable housing policy in the history of the State. The fund is open and I have encouraged all local authorities to access it. We will have the first home shared equity scheme across all 31 local authorities and all 26 counties in the State open from 1 July. We are delivering affordable housing this year, both affordable rental and affordable purchase. We are not just talking about it.

We have run out of time. With the permission of the House, I will take the last three together. I call Deputy Danny Healy-Rae.

I wish to raise with the Taoiseach a very important matter. Many elderly people are encountering severe problems in attaining home help. They are waiting for months. We cannot understand this because on the other side I know that people have qualified, are Garda vetted and are ready to go. The answer I am getting back day after day is that they do not have the staff and that they are waiting for them to be Garda vetted. There is something wrong. There needs to be an investigation into this matter because people cannot wait any longer. Old people do not have time on their side.

I hope the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, can take this question. The current wind energy guidelines date back to 2006. They are grossly outdated. A new set of guidelines, which was to be adopted on the eve of the 2020 election, is still on the desk of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. How long more will they be there? We need them operational. We have seen best and worse practice over the past two years without updated guidelines being there. Could I also say that some of the conditions attached to planning, for example at the Slieve Callan wind farm in County Clare, are not being enforced? I have a complaint with the local authority at present relating to noise pollution but the local authority does not seem to have the resources to enforce these conditions.

I want to raise the murder of a female Al Jazeera journalist by Israeli troops in a Palestinian refugee camp earlier today. A photographer from the French media company, AFP, has reported that Shireen Abu Akleh was wearing a press flak jacket and standing with other journalists when she was shot and killed by Israeli troops. The Israeli Defense Forces ignored the jacket and shot her in the head in what has been described as a cold-blooded assassination. Another journalist reports that the "army did not stop firing even after she collapsed.", and goes on to say, "The army was adamant on shooting to kill." What action will be taken against this apartheid state?

In response to Deputy Danny Healy-Rae, funding has been provided for home help. The service has been dramatically expanded and increased by millions of hours by the Minister of State, Deputy Butler. There has been an issue in terms of recruitment of staff. If the Deputy has specific instances where staff are available to care for people, I ask that he forward them to the Minister of State, Deputy Butler. I am sure the Minister of State will take those up with the Deputy. Like the Deputy, we want to get to the bottom of it. The issue genuinely has been one of recruitment.

Deputy Cathal Crowe raised the issue of the guidelines. I will talk to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. They have been a long time in gestation and they have not come to fruition. There is a need to finish that, one way or the other, although I would have to repeat that renewable energy will be important, and wind will be particularly important in Ireland. Onshore and, increasingly, offshore wind will be a key ingredient in terms of our ability to deal with energy shortages.

To respond to Deputy Paul Murphy, I have already condemned in a previous answer the appalling murder of Palestinian Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was fatally shot while reporting on a raid by the Israeli Defense Forces in Jenin in the occupied West Bank. We have issued a statement condemning the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh. Media freedom and the safety of journalists is paramount and must be protected. There must be a full, thorough and independent investigation. Ireland expresses its deepest condolences to Shireen's family. In any forum we are a participant in, we will call for such independent investigations.